The flying lumberyard – AKA Spruce Goose

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Here I am sitting in a hotel room in Bandon, Oregon, overlooking the beach and crashing waves.  I’m pretty excited this morning, because low tide is in 20 minutes and I’m ready to go tide-pooling with my dog.  Problem is that there have been gale force winds all night and the rain is horizontal.  I can hardly see the beach, but can sure hear the breaking waves.  I guess beach combing is not on the docket for today.

Yesterday went a little more like plan on our little holiday, my wife and I visited the Evergreen Museum in McMinnville, which was an impressive collection of aircraft, space vehicles and a water park.  The water park seems a bit random, but hey, it works.  The claim to fame for the Evergreen Museum, besides the Boeing 747 parked on its front lawn, is that the main building was constructed around the Spruce Goose, the largest all-wood airplane ever built, and briefly flew in 1947.

If you are not familiar with the Spruce Goose, you can read about it here.  The Dime Store description is that it was the largest airplane built for its time, and remains one of the largest built to date.  The scale of the project is amazing, and standing underneath the wingspan is impressive.  The brainchild of Howard Hughes, it was built in 1943-1947, it is an aquatic plane that weighs 300,000 pounds, the wingspan is more than a football field, 8 propeller engines and was intended to carry 750 wartime troops.  Most unique is that it was built entirely from wood due to war-time material shortages, using construction techniques developed for the project.

I am fascinated by this undertaking, given the scale and the timeline that was achieved at this time is history.  The typical design cycle that I drive towards for a new slot machine product is 14 months, which historically gets compressed to the 8-10 month time frame from concept to production.  This is today, using today’s technology of solid modeling, rapid prototyping and electronic simulations.  All of these tools have evolved over the years specifically aimed at reducing the time to market.  How were Hughes and company able to pull off the Spruce Goose in 4 years, napkin sketch to first flight?

I understand it’s a matter of resources, larger projects need larger resource pools.  Of course the more people you throw into the kitchen the greater level of coordination and bureaucracy are required.

How is all of this relevant?  For me it is a wake-up call when faced with deadlines and design specs that seem unrealistic.  No matter how large the task seems, look back at history and see what was accomplished.  Another take-away for me is that better tools are not the only answer, we often fall into the ‘if I only had XXX, I could meet the challenge’ trap.  Hughes carved he largest plane in history from a pile of lumber for crying out loud.  Hughes also did not get wrapped up by roadblocks, instead he innovated solutions to work through, or work around the challenges.

I’d like to think all challenges are overcome-able, although it may take a little work.

What are your thoughts?  love to hear them, please leave a comment.


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