Today, the Spruce Goose and river blindness. 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.
It was a quiet week in Oregon
-- family in Portland, high school reunion in
Roseburg, a few days on that glorious coast. Before
we headed back to the airport, someone reminded us
that the famous Hughes Hercules, the
Spruce Goose, had come to rest near
McMinnville, along the way. Of course, we stopped
by to see it.
The Spruce Goose is the largest airplane
ever made. Howard Hughes and the Kaiser Company
began it during WW-II as a long-range seaplane
meant for moving heavy cargo -- 320-foot wingspan,
sixty-five-ton payload, thirty-five-hundred-mile
range. It's big.
It's made of wood (mostly birch, but birch
doesn't rhyme with goose) and it has fabric-covered
control surfaces. It's an anachronism, but not
because of wood and fabric. By the late 1930s,
land-based airplanes with retractable landing gear
finally had range and power to cross oceans and
carry a payload as well.
But a seaplane also has to carry its own boat --
either a fat floating fuselage or unretractable
pontoons. Either yields a high-drag, slow-moving
airplane. The Goose, with its thirty-foot
high body, would've cruised at less than two
hundred miles an hour.
The Kaiser Company had already pulled out when
Howard Hughes finally taxi-tested the airplane in
1947. He unexpectedly lifted off and flew to a
height of forty or seventy feet (depending on
whether you count the hull or the pilot's seat). He
showed the world that it flew and then mothballed
Now I enter the museum. As I gape at the monster, I
don't notice the chairs and podium beside it. Then,
a tap on my shoulder: "Hi, John, didn't know you'd
be at the dedication!" It's a colleague from Oregon
State University. At just this moment, the American
Society of Mechanical Engineers is naming the
Goose as a historical landmark. For
it is an engineering masterpiece.
I wander among the many other airplanes,
like butterflies in the Goose's shadow --
WW-I airplanes, a beautiful Ford Trimotor, a
Piper Cub. An old pilot
is standing by the
B-17. "I flew 35 missions," he says. "Then, one
day, an explosion, and this went rattling through
my cockpit." He shows me a nasty piece of flak and
adds, "I said, 'Thank you, God,' and put it in my
In any case, Disney put the Goose on
display at Long Beach in 1960 and lost money on the
venture. Finally, Evergreen International Aviation
offered to take it. They broke it down and
reassembled it in this glass and steel building
in Oregon vineyard country.
Evergreen has an airline, makes helicopters, owns
orchards, farms, nurseries, and much more.
Evergreen's Humanitarian and Relief Services are
heavily involved in providing air support in the
struggle to eradicate river blindness across
In the end the pieces fit together. It all feels
like a throwback to the off-the-wall drama and
idealism of early-twentieth-century flight. A
strange epoch lost, and, for a moment, a strange
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For more on the Evergreen Museum see:
For more on the Evergreen Humanitarian and
Relief Services, see:
Action Against Infection.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.