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Key Evergreen museum planes to go on the auction block

The world-class air museum developed by Evergreen International Aviation founder Del Smith may be in for some painful losses in the wake of the apparent collapse of Smith’s network of for-profit operations on the other side of Highway 18.

Though the museum’s land and buildings are owned and operated through the nonprofit Michael King Smith Foundation, named after the 83-year-old founder’s late son, up to 20 percent of its 140-odd exhibits are owned by financially troubled for-profit elements of his crumbling aviation empire. Foremost among them is Evergreen Vintage Aircraft, listed by the Federal Aviation Administration as owner of 15 planes currently on display at the museum.

Another subsidiary, Evergreen Holdings Inc., owns just two of the planes on display at the museum, according to the FAA. But they are among the choicest, and both have been listed with brokers — one of 12 still-airworthy Ford Tri-motor passenger liners, a meticulously restored 1928 listed at $1.75 million, and a Grumman TBM-3 torpedo bomber, a World War II military craft listed $250,000.

However, the aviation museum’s centerpiece, Howard Hughes’ iconic wooden goliath, the Spruce Goose, is safe. It is owned by the museum, according to Executive Director Larry Wood.

Wood said Evergreen Vintage Aircraft owns several of the older planes in the museum’s inventory, including fighters and bombers dating to World War II and some replicas of the earliest planes flown. With judgments and liens piling up against various of Evergreen’s for-profit subsidiaries, he acknowledged, some of those planes could be sold or repossessed to satisfy debts.

However, he downplayed the impact.

“I think the total is less than 20 percent of the collection, if they took them all, and I don’t think they’d all be at risk,” Wood said, explaining that new owners might choose to donate craft back to the museum for the tax write-off rather than take physical possession.

He is an admirer of the older planes, he said, but thinks the majority of visitors come either to see the Spruce Goose or the museum’s large collection of newer planes, most of which are safe.

“You don’t want to lose an artifact if you can avoid it, but many of the things that are in the museum are on loan from somebody anyway,” Wood said. If not, he said, “When we have money again, we’ll go and buy them back. Or we’ll buy different ones.”

Craft owned by Evergreen Vintage Aircraft, thus at peril, include a Messerschmitt ME 109G-10, which the museum calls “the spearhead of Germany’s World War II fighter force;” its British nemesis, the Supermarine Spitfire Mark XVI; a Curtiss Wright Sedan and a Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk.

Craft owned by the Michael King Smith Foundation, thus not in jeopardy, include a replica of the Spirit of St. Louis, which Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic in his historic solo flight in 1927.

The Ford Tri-Motor, known in its day at the “tin goose,” is arguably one of the museum’s most charming exhibits. Its wood-paneled interior, featuring small seats and narrow aisles, illustrate the rigors of early commercial air travel. The museum notes passengers “had to be almost as tough and resilient as the planes in which they traveled,” and by all accounts, the tri-motor qualified.

The Grumman Avenger was a World War II torpedo bomber. It was equipped with radar pods as well as rockets, enabling it to conduct surveillance as well as pound the enemy.

After the war, it was put to many other uses, including search and rescue work. According to the sale listing, the museum’s plane is one of only 42 still airworthy.

Wood said he understood the two planes were part of the Evergreen Vintage Aircraft inventory. He said he was not aware of any Evergreen Holdings ownerships.

For the past year, the state Department of Justice has been investigating alleged financial co-mingling between the museum and company, which would not be legal. But so far, the state has refused to release any information.

Wood has downplayed the probe, saying any such co-mingling was inadvertent, minor in nature and in the process of being corrected. But privately, some former employees blame the complany’s demise on the museum, maintaining Smith funneled airline profits “across the street” to his pride and joy.