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ISSUE 112 - April 2010
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Airplanes and Wine

By Mike Kincaid, Contributing Editor & Photographer
Coeur d' Alene, ID

“Eight hours, bottle to throttle.” That’s a good rule to which all sane pilots adhere. However, there are no FAA rules restricting the time between “throttle to bottle.” If it’s fine wine pouring from the bottle and the room is full of amazing air and spacecraft, this rule-reversal makes for fun times. As a way of introducing wine lovers to aviation history, or airplane lovers to wine (or both), the 120,000- square-foot Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum opens its huge glass doors to the McMinnville Wine & Food Classic each spring.

McMinnville, Oregon, is home to the Evergreen facility strategically located just across the highway from the mile-long paved runway of the town’s airport. From the tarmac, you can’t miss the huge, white and green Boeing 747 decorating the lawn of the massive A-frame hangar. Looming in the floor-to-ceiling glass wall, the airplane with the largest wingspan (320 feet) of any aircraft ever built. The famous Hughes H-4 Hercules seems to dwarf the jumbo jet. Nicknamed the “Spruce Goose” by critics, the birch plywood and resin composite construction was a technological tour-de-force in the 1940’s. This centerpiece aircraft was capable of carrying 750 troops and other war materials up to and including tanks. Lambasted by a hostile Congress for its extreme cost overruns, the World War II military-contract seaplane never made it to war, or in fact to any other missions. Sitting in Howard Hughes’ pilot seat on the expansive flight deck which I’m pretty sure could easily hold my J-3. It’s hard to imagine that all the research, time, money and grief that went into this massive craft resulted in but one flight of only about a mile at a maximum altitude of 70 feet.  Even that liftoff was not supposed to occur; speculation is that Hughes pulled it off during high-speed taxi testing just to prove it would fly.

Displayed around, above, and under the Spruce Goose are more than 150 historic aircraft and exhibits, ranging from man’s earliest efforts at flight to today’s jets, each with its own story. Some favorites are a Wright Flyer Replica, a DC-3, Beech Staggerwing, B-17 Flying Fortress, Convair F-102A, Bell AH-1F Cobra and an F-15. Some of the WW II era fighters are reputed to be the best of their types in the world. Guided tours by volunteers are available, and the museum has a gift shop, café, farm store with wine tasting, and an impressive firearms display.

A short stroll across Captain Michael King Smith Way to the 55,00 square-foot IMAX theater allows one to virtually join Captain John Stratton in an F-15 Eagle during a combat flight-training exercise, walk on the moon in 3D to the narration of Tom Hanks, and follow the trail of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. It’s the most dramatic way to experience these incredible and realistic adventures without getting airsick, wearing a space suit, or taking a really long cross-country hike.

My visit to the Evergreen campus happened to fall on the first evening of the annual Wine & Food Classic, held in the glass-walled Space Museum located just a couple of Spruce Goose wingspans past the theater. Equal in size to the aviation museum, this building features marvels from the Sputnik Replica to a Skylab Airlock Training Mockup. Specimens include a Titan II missile, replicas of the Gemini spacecraft, the Lunar Module and the Lunar Roving Vehicle. One can get up-close-and-personal with a Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird (reminding me of fun story-telling retired Air Force General/SR-71 pilot a few years ago at a different event-wine was involved there, too) and stand under a Northrop T-38A Talon.  Plans are under way to add a real retired Space Shuttle in the near future.

While I’m still learning about aviation after 35 years of professional and recreational flying, I know more about aviating than I do about wine, but my under-educated palate greatly appreciated the offerings from over 70 wineries. For me, it’s hard to remember to sip the wine, rather than just drink it. It’s even harder to separate the great wines from the ordinary when so many are outstanding. After multiple “sips,” I find it even harder to be critic, especially while dining on fresh salmon and being entertained by a 9-piece band, the “Soul Shots,” which features a 14-year-old lad who should win American Idol some day.

McMinnville is in a strategic location for wine lovers, as there are about 400 vineyards dotting the foothills of the Willamette Valley. The climate is ideal for growing such grapes as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and White Riesling, making for a fair comparison of the region to those of France and Germany. Considering that most of the vineyard entrepreneurs probably work as hard as aviation business owners and for as modest a return, it’s probably not fair for a low-time wine sipper to report a favorite. I will admit to bringing home a few delicious bottles from the Evergreen Vineyards. Like buying an airplane for a pretty paint job, they had me with the colorful labels featuring the Spruce Goose.

Wine tasting is a year-around activity in the McMinnville area, as most wineries welcome the public. Guided tours are available, and events¾including Linfield College’s International Pinot Noir Festival¾run throughout the summer. Throw in live entertainment, local crafts, and great food, and the trip to the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum makes for an amazing vacation and educational experience.

In the same grand scheme of the museums and IMAX, construction is underway on a lodge and an aviation-lover’s dream of a water park nestled in the vineyards of the Evergreen complex. The 747 sitting on the lawn will rise again, this time to be mounted on the water park’s roof. Thrill-seekers will be able to slide out of the jetliner and into the pool. Now there is definitely something for the whole airplane-wine-water-loving family.

By Mike Kincaid

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