I can’t remember my first ride in an airplane, but I will never forget my first turn at the stick. My grandfather had a little red Cessna 150. He piled a couple of phone books on the seat so I could see out, and once we were up in the air and a safe distance from the little New Jersey airport, he let me have a turn at the controls. I was 8.
My dad was about that age when he started flying. My brothers and I took flying lessons when the other kids were taking piano lessons or playing sports. Our vacation travel was often done in a rented Cessna. Dad’s the kind of guy who pulls over to watch a plane fly overhead. We played Go Fish with cards that featured silhouettes of military planes like the ones issued to civilian spotters during World War II. Dad’s an airplane nerd.
So, naturally, when my parents came for a pre-Christmas visit, I was pretty excited to take him to Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum.
Dad’s a civilian, but he worked for the Navy. I lost track of how many planes in the collection he said that he had flown, ridden in or knew someone who had piloted one. He was in nerdvana. Dad’s in his 60s, but he was running around Evergreen like a hyperactive two-year-old. He had a story for every display. The docents, instead of telling us about the planes, patiently listened to him.
Nobody batted an eye when he hopped a rope and scampered up to the bomb bay of the B-17 and popped his head in. It was nifty to see up close, he said, but he’s glad he never had to be a part of its flight crew. “The various gunners must have felt really exposed in combat,” he said. If anything went wrong, those guys weren’t going to make it.
He spared the docent the story of locking himself in the radio room of a C-47 to escape his barfing Air Force ROTC classmates on a trip to Florida for spring break. He did mention that he’d been allowed to fly it for a few minutes. Cool, huh? That’s one big bird.
Not as big as the Spruce Goose itself.
That’s the big draw at Evergreen. That alone is worth the price of admission. There’s no way to adequately describe how vast it is. It’s like an apartment building lying on its side. Heck, it’s like an apartment complex. You couldn’t park it on a football field unless you removed the goal posts. If you walked across the wings from port to starboard, and then realized you left your cup of coffee on the port wing tip, you’d be irritated because your coffee would be cold by the time you got back. It’s big, OK? Huge. Most of the other aircraft at Evergreen fit neatly nestled around it. The Spruce Goose exhibit includes a model made for “The Aviator” movie, a documentary film, a lot of text explaining various details, and, for a little extra money, a chance to get your picture taken in the nose.
Howard Hughes was hoping he had designed the future of flight. So far it looks like he was a little wide of the mark. But a stroll through Evergreen offers a pretty tidy and concise lesson on the history of flight. Look at the airfoils, Dad said. First he indicated the replica of the Wright Flyer. Then we turned around to inspect a few more of World War I vintage. Circle that Spruce Goose and you’ll see a whole spectrum of wing sizes, shapes and placements.
I wish I could lend you my dad for your tour. He’d like to go back and have another look, too. But you don’t need him. The text on the displays is comprehensive and informative, and there are friendly and knowledgeable docents all over the museum. Dad’s recounting of the assassination of Admiral Yamamoto and the role the P-38 Lightning played in it was entertaining, but Evergreen’s version is pretty good account, too.
It wasn’t only the war planes that captured Dad’s attention. At the end of the tour, standing at the entrance, I asked him what his favorite part was. He smiled and pointed up. We were standing right underneath a bright yellow Piper J-3C-65 Cub. “I really like to fly them,” he said.
Know a pilot? Get that person to Evergreen. It should be easy — the McMinnville airport is right across the street. Fly in. Tie down. Go play. The collection is extensive and carefully curated. At one point, Dad said that the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. looked a little shopworn by comparison.
High praise indeed.