Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1274:
THE MAXIM GORKY

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1274.

Today, Stalin builds a big airplane. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Joseph Stalin fixated on convincing the world that Russia was a leader in the new technology of aviation. He drove his designers to set distance and endurance records, and he sent them off to the gulags when they failed. In 1932 Russia commissioned a great passenger plane to honor her famous writer Maxim Gorky. This propaganda plane was to be named after Gorky.

Russia's leading designer, Nikolaevich Tupolev, got the project. A whole airplane factory, with 800 workers, was assigned to it. Complex as it was, the Maxim Gorky flew only two years later. It had eight engines. Its wingspan was greater than a 747's. It cruised at 137 miles per hour and had a range of 1200 miles.

The Maxim Gorky made a great publicity flight two months after its test flight. It was staffed with 23 people, and it was to carry forty special passengers -- farmers who'd made their quotas, highly productive factory workers, and other heroes of the Revolution. Flashing lights on the undersides of its wings were to blink slogans at the people below.

An American engineer, Maurie White, picks up the story at this point. His father, also an engineer, was an American building truck radiators for Russia. He was one of the workers whose productivity earned him a place on the flight.

White tells how, on the morning of May 18th, 1935, a company driver came to collect his father, his brother, and him. The trip to the Moscow airport was a disaster. The driver came late and then made a wrong turn. The traffic was bad. They arrived late and found the gate locked -- the plane gone. It was a bitter disappointment for a 15-year-old looking to his first airplane ride.

The Maxim Gorky had lumbered into the air accompanied on each wingtip by a little biplane. One was there to take pictures. The other, even smaller, one was simply there to emphasize the vast size of the Gorky. Its pilot began showing off for a kid on board the big airplane. He did a loop, and then he drifted as he came out of it. Down he came, straight into the Maxim Gorky's wing. Forty-nine people died in the crash. The New York Times called it the worst air disaster in history.

And so young Maurie White lived to tell about the day. His parents had been worried about the political climate in Russia, and this was the last straw. They packed up and went back to America. White grew up to work on the P-47 Thunderbolt, America's most powerful fighter in WW-II.

The Russians had another Maxim Gorky built by 1939, but it was a useless whale in a world that needed fast-moving military airplanes. Stalin's game was over. Yet, as I read White's account 62 years later, I can still feel a child's pain in missing that flight -- still taste his lingering, irrational disappointment.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


White, M., The People's Plane. American Heritage (The "My Brush with History" feature), October, 1997, pp. 20-22.

Angelucci, E., World Encyclopedia of Civil Aircraft. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1982, pp. 211, 238-239.

For more on this epoch in Russian aviation, see Episode 62.




The Tupolev ANT-20, Maxim Gorky


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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