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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

Hughes’ ghost looms large in McMinnville, OR

On a recent trip to McMInnville, OR, I was surprised to learn that a bit of Howard Hughes existed in the town.

Hughes, if you'll recall, was the reclusive rich guy who at one time was an aviator. In fact, the 2004 film "The Aviator" told his story, ending with his final years living as a shut-in in a Las Vegas hotel.

But the film isn't titled "The Aviator" lightly. And one incident in Hughes' long career was the creation of a monstrous airplane known as The Spruce Goose (proper name: Hughes H-4 Hercules). A massive seaplane, the aircraft boasts wings that span some 320 feet — which is 20 feet longer than the field football players compete on.

I'd known that the plane was somewhere in the Northwest. But it wasn't until I was approaching McMinnville (en route to a wedding event) that I realized where the Goose was exactly. And so I had to visit it.

The plane sits in the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, a nonprofit that is dedicated both to preserving the history of aviation and space and to honoring veterans. My wife and I toured the building that houses dozens of airplanes, both civilian and military, listening to a former Air Force pilot talk about each one (in distinctly nonpolitical terms that thrilled me; he called one former Air Force chief "a jerk").

And the whole time we walked around the one building (a separate building is dedicated to the space program), the wings of the Goose loomed over us. The thing is that big and more.

We finally went inside the plane and felt even more dwarfed by its size. Going inside the fuselage is free, though access to the cockpit needs a special tour (and costs nearly $30 for up to four people to climb in there for just 15 minutes, so we passed).

But just walking around the behemoth is an experience — especially when you consider that the plane (which is made of birch, not spruce) flew only once, and then cleared the water for only 70 feet during its mile-long trek.

That it got up in the air at all feels like a miracle.