By Melissa Slager Special to The Herald
From the Tin Goose to the Spruce Goose and the V-2 to the Titan II, Evergreen Aviation &Space Museum in McMinnville, Ore., offers plenty of opportunities to geek out.
But beneath the “wow” factor of the museum’s big acquisitions and the “ohh” factor of smaller details is the deliberate attention paid to the people behind the machines.
“Without telling the stories, these are just pieces of metal, fabric and wood. You can’t tell the story of aviation without telling the stories of the people,” said Stewart W. Bailey, curator.
At Evergreen, those personalities include Howard Hughes, whose towering H-4 flying boat still speaks to the peculiarities of the germaphobe and magnate.
The stories also include the late Lt. Col. James A. Poier of Snohomish, a former Boeing flight instructor who donated a polished Eagle II he built and named “Debbie Lou” after his daughter and wife.
And there are the countless stories of veterans, particularly fighters in World War II.
A scarred propeller displayed on a sand-filled pedestal is from an F4F Wildcat that was piloted by the first aviator to receive the Medal of Honor for his sacrificial heroism defending Wake Island.
The Spitfire becomes more than a pretty picture and stats about horsepower when hearing about the British ace with two artificial legs who found success flying one like it. At one point he filled his legs with pingpong balls in case he had to eject into water.
“These are the kinds of stories people remember,” Bailey said.
From the time you enter the Evergreen museum campus on the runwaylike drive you’re impressed by the sheer size of the multibuilding venture.
The museum’s largest acquisitions continue to demand attention.
At the center is the Spruce Goose, the largest airplane ever constructed of wood, a 747’s bloated cousin. The aircraft flew only once — to prove it could — in 1947, and then it sat in a climate-controlled hangar for nearly 30 years. A paid crew waited for Hughes to come back for a second flight that never happened.
Made of birch, the Goose was painstakingly restored by museum volunteers from the time it was acquired in 1993 to when it went on display with the museum’s opening in 2001.
“This July marks the 20th anniversary of being awarded the Spruce Goose, and there are still people who come in and say, ‘I thought that was in Long Beach,’ ” Bailey said.
Inside the aircraft, visitors can see the special machinery added but never used to pump germ-free air above Hughes’ head in the pilot’s seat. Small groups of visitors can go to the flight deck for an added $25; volunteer docents explain that too many “souvenirs” were taken while the plane was in Long Beach to allow for wider access.
Other aircraft in the aviation wing of the museum include: a 1918 de Havilland that was later rebuilt by Boeing into a mail carrier (and still carries its airworthiness certificate); the specialized Quickie Q2, designed to echo an X-wing fighter from the movie “Star Wars”; a Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress; and replicas of a Messerschmitt Me-262 Schwalbe and Focke Wulf Fw-190A-7 Wurger, both of which were made by Everett’s Legend Flyers out of Paine Field.
Across the parking lot at the space museum building, it’s the Titan II SLV missile that commands the main gallery.
Visitors can walk down the steps into the missile silo and duck into an actual launch control room transferred from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Much of the equipment is from the 1960s, with modern computer monitors and other additions.
A push of a button takes you through the last five minutes of a Titan launch in 2003, including video, the last such booster rocket to be shot into space. Speakers deeply reverberate at the point that the missile underwent maximum structural stress, giving a taste of what it’s like to feel “max Q” from the ground.
Other highlights of this area, infused with a historical timeline, include a piece of the Berlin Wall, a duly imposing SR-71 Blackbird and a replica space command module used in the splashdown scenes of the movie “Apollo 13.”
The museum applied for one of the three retired space shuttles up for grabs — which would have been “free” but carried $28.6 million in preparation and transportation costs — but came in as the No. 8 choice, behind Seattle’s air museum, based on metropolitan population figures.
“We are a little bit off the beaten path,” Bailey said.
Indeed, why McMinnville? Why such an impressive effort that takes such a long drive to reach, as close to the coast as it is to Portland?
It’s an oft-asked question but with an easy answer: Here is where you find Delford M. Smith.
The hands-on owner is founder of Evergreen International Aviation and numerous other ventures headquartered across the highway that have made the museum possible.
After growing up in Centralia, Smith served with the U.S. Air Force in the late 1940s and early ’50s as a pathfinder, parachuting more than 40 times to forward patrol positions, Bailey said. He ended up in McMinnville after taking over a flying service that eventually became Evergreen Helicopters.
He’s been expanding ever since.
Besides the extensive museum efforts, Evergreen also has a hand in wines and organic blueberries, and is one of North America’s largest producers of filberts.
The museum campus also includes a large theater that shows 3-D movies with aviation and science themes.
For separate admission, there also is the Evergreen Wings &Waves Waterpark, which features the campus’s most visually arresting exterior feature: Parked on the roof is a Boeing 747-100 with water slides coming from the exit doors. (Sorry kids, an actual water landing in a jetliner might not be quite as fun.) The park includes numerous lessons on the power of water amid the wave pools and slides.
The water park opened in 2011. Plans call for a 92-room lodge to be built next between the water park and aviation portion of the main museum complex, with construction slated to begin this summer.
Like other buildings on the campus, it will open on a D-Day — June 6 — likely in 2014.
At age 82, Smith doesn’t show signs of slowing down, either, Bailey said.
The elder Smith still visits the aviation museum daily, although he may not see it quite like many of its visitors.
Standing at the entrance is a large statue of the late Capt. Michael K. Smith, who died in a car crash in 1995. It was Michael Smith, Del Smith’s son, who spurred the creation of the museum and carried the same sentimental affection for aviation that draws the museum’s 200,000-plus visitors each year.
The elder Smith? “He was too much of a businessman to be sentimental about aircraft. They were a tool to him,” Bailey said.
A tool he’s been putting to very good use these days.
Evergreen Aviation &Space Museum
WHERE: 500 NE Captain Michael King Smith Way, McMinnville, Ore., about an hour outside Portland.
ADMISSION: $20 general admission, $19 for seniors (65 and up), $18 for ages 5 to 16. Includes admission to aviation and space museums and firearms exhibit.
CONTACT: 503-434-4185, www.evergreenmuseum.org.
ALSO ON THE CAMPUS: Evergreen Wings &Waves Waterpark; $30 for those over 42 inches tall, $25 if shorter, age 3 and under free.
Movie theater: $11 general admission, $10 for seniors and $9 for youth.