Up close and personal with the legendary Spruce Goose

Last weekend, I had the chance to sit where a genius sat almost 75 years ago.

The seat? The captain’s seat on the H-4 Hercules.

The genius? Howard Robard Hughes.

The Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, first opened in 1991 with a small collection of aircraft in a hangar. Two years later, the legendary Hughes H-4 Hercules arrived after the museum won a bid to build a brand new facility to display the huge flying boat.

Fondly known as the “Spruce Goose” — though it was made almost entirely of birch — the airplane underwent eight years of restoration and was mostly complete when the new museum opened June 6, 2011. Control surfaces were put on over the course of the next several months, with the last piece put into place December 7 that year.

I’m partial to Hughes because so much of Howard, his companies and his products are embedded in Boeing today. McDonnell Douglas acquired Hughes Helicopters in 1984 (Boeing and McDonnell Douglas merged in 1997) and Boeing acquired Hughes Space & Communications in 2000.

Hughes took the Spruce Goose on its one and only flight Nov. 2, 1947. It flew for less than a minute and traveled less than a mile. Even though the H-4 was limited to the one prototype and flew just once, it went down in the record books as one of the largest airplanes ever built. In fact, it held the record of largest wingspan until 2019 when the Stratolaunch first flew. It’s pretty remarkable that this World War 2 era behemoth is still among the five largest airplanes ever built.

Overlay comparison of five largest airplanes ever built, courtesy of Clem Tillier.

So, if you’re ever in the Portland area, I highly recommend making the 45-minute drive south to McMinnville to see the Spruce Goose and the 50-plus additional aircraft and spacecraft at the Evergreen Museum. Also, if you haven’t seen “The Aviator,” give it a watch. Howard Hughes was such a fascinating person. He was a Hollywood legend, a skilled businessman, an engineer and a record-setting pilot — and that’s just scratching the surface.

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