Just like the once renowned Miss Universe Pageant, I don’t think Long Beach ever appreciated the mystical “Spruce Goose” the way it should have. I’ve often pondered the fate of the behemoth wooden aircraft and finally decided I had to pay a visit to its (relatively) new home in McMinnville, Ore.
McMinnville is a quiet little town about 35 miles southwest of Portland. It’s well known for its wines and for Linfield College, a small liberal arts college with an enrollment of less than 2,000. But, perhaps it’s best known as the home of the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, the new permanent home of the Spruce Goose.
As I reflect on the history and nostalgia of Howard Hughes, and his effort to build a giant flying boat to transport cargo across the Atlantic during World War II, I’m still impressed with his accomplishment. To reduce weight, and because metals were already directed to the war effort, the plane, officially known as the Hughes H-4 Hercules, was built almost entirely out of wood. It was an engineering marvel in its time and was honored as the largest aircraft ever built for a period of several years.
Hughes was always chagrined that the press had erroneously dubbed his masterpiece as the Spruce Goose — because it was primarily made out of birch.
The plane was originally built at Hughes Aircraft in Playa Vista, Calif., and later broken down into pieces and moved to Long Beach Harbor for live testing. Surely, every airplane buff remembers its historic maiden flight in 1947.
After its one and only flight, it was stored in a giant hanger in the harbor until after Hughes’s death in 1976. Eventually, it wound up in the giant dome next to the Queen Mary, a site considered its permanent resting place. This is where I first saw it in person. I remember walking through the giant fuselage and marveled at the size. Several displays inside the dome featured its history. It was a great experience and attracted visitors from around the world.
Unfortunately, the flying boat’s residence in Long Beach wasn’t as permanent as we thought it would be. Ownership of the site and the plane kept changing until Evergreen Aviation purchased the wooden treasure in 1993.
It took several years for Evergreen to build a new home for the Spruce Goose and move its pieces to McMinnville. Evergreen Aviation has now gone out of business. The only thing left of this once prestigious aircraft company is the museum, and the museum site has now been expanded to encompass a theater, space museum and a waterpark.
The museum campus is quite impressive. There’s a Boeing 747 on the front lawn and another one on the roof of the waterpark. Everything is on a grand scale — certainly befitting of the huge trophy centerpiece.
The Evergreen Museum gives you a better sense of the size of the monstrous aircraft than the Long Beach dome because they have surrounded it with other airplanes and helicopters. The 320-foot wingspan alone is almost impossible to comprehend.
Access to the cargo area is no longer open to the public and maybe that’s a good thing, keeping preservation in mind. For an extra fee you can take a VIP tour of the cockpit and get a souvenir photo. I didn’t opt for that one however.
With all of its mystique and lore, I’m pleased to report the Spruce Goose is being well taken care of in McMinnville. If you’re in the Portland area, it’s well worth the side trip.