Stephen F. Austin State University

R.G. LeTourneau had 'mystic touch' (October 2018)

R.G. LeTourneau had 'mystic touch'

By Van Craddock

Texas oilman George H.W. Bush was looking for an inventor who thought big. That's where legendary Longview industrialist R.G. LeTourneau came in.

The year was 1956 and LeTourneau was hoping to sell the future U.S. president a $3 million, nine-million-pound portable off-shore drilling rig.

The "Scorpion" rig was something to see. It stood 186 feet long and 150 feet wide on three huge legs, each 140 feet long. All of the steel and most of the components had been made at LeTourneau's main plant in Longview. Actual fabrication was done on the banks of the Mississippi River at LeTourneau's Vicksburg plant.

In George H.W. Bush's autobiography, Looking Forward, the man who would become President No. 41 wrote that no one doubted offshore drilling represented the future of the petroleum business.

"But what LeTourneau proposed," Bush said, "was a giant leap into the future. Not only was LeTourneau's equipment different, but the man himself was unorthodox. LeTourneau was gruff, eccentric, a kind of George Patton of engineering. He was the man of action with a mystic touch, a dynamo, a creative genius."

LeTourneau had arrived in Longview in 1946, opening a steel mill and a technical school (now called LeTourneau University). LeTourneau built large construction, mining, logging and drilling equipment. In fact, LeTourneau built the world's biggest earthmoving machines. But he also wanted to construct mobile platforms for offshore drilling.

Bush recalled that LeTourneau had come to Zapata Off-Shore Company, Bush's firm, with a unique proposition. LeTourneau would build the Scorpion at his own expense. Zapata would advance him $400,000, which would be refunded if the monster portable machine didn't work.

However, if the big rig did work, LeTourneau would receive another $550,000 plus shares of Zapata common stock. "Our feeling was that anybody who had that much confidence in himself was worth the gamble," Bush wrote of LeTourneau.

The East Texas industrialist knew his Scorpion was quite a gamble. The all-weather drilling platform had to safely operate in dangerous waters.

"We made a deal that I believe is unique for untested equipment running into so many million dollars," R.G. LeTourneau said in his 1967 Mover of Men and Mountains autobiography.

The Zapata Off-Shore Company would test the Scorpion "under actual operating conditions. If it worked as guaranteed, we were all in business. If it didn't stand up to my guarantee, and that's where I had to be pretty sure of myself, well, I'd be the small boy going back to school on a wrong guess," LeTourneau said.

The LeTourneau agreement brought Zapata a lot of publicity. "The only problem was, the darn thing didn't work - at least, not at first," Bush said. The machine's jacking system failed and the Gulf saltwater seeped into its gear boxes.

But that didn't faze LeTourneau, who was a man used to temporary setbacks.

"LeTourneau didn't go back to the drawing board," Bush remembered. "We watched incredulously as he looked at his monster's legs, then at the rack-and-pinion gears. Then right there on the steel deck, he pulled out some chalk and sketched the changes that had to be made. No engineer's drawings, not even a slide rule. But it worked."

Within a month the redesigned LeTourneau Scorpion was back in the water drilling for oil. Bush was so impressed that in 1957 he signed on for a second drilling platform, this one called the Vinagaroon. Later that year, it was the only off-shore rig on the Gulf Coast to escape Hurricane Audrey undamaged.

George H.W. Bush became president in 1989. R.G. LeTourneau died two decades earlier, in 1969. Today, LeTourneau University attracts students from around the world.

"Mr. R.G." wouldn't recognize the beautiful campus, which originally consisted of wooden barracks from a recently closed World War II Army hospital.