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
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
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