Saturday, July 31, 2010

Book Review: "The Engines of Pratt & Whitney: A Technical History" by Jack Connors

There is a soft spot in my heart for Pratt & Whitney Aircraft. In the mid-1960's when I embarked on my engineering education the aerospace industry was booming. We were going to the moon! Four years later there was a recession on. Apollo was winding down, Southeast Asia was hot, and job offers were scarce. I went to work for P&WA, assigned to design small bits of turbine engines.

The job lasted ten months; then they allowed as how I could keep coming to work but they couldn't afford to keep paying me. I moved on, soon ending up in the shipbuilding business.

But what I'd seen of engineering as it was practiced at Pratt & Whitney, I'd liked. They were an organization committed to giving the customer a product that was first class in every respect, and they applied leading-edge technology to do it. I learned a few good lessons in my short tenure there.

Now, Jack Connors' new book has provided a context for my experience. Mr. Connors joined P&WA in 1948 as the piston engine era was drawing to a close and he retired as a Vice President in Engineering, in 1983. After retirement, he and a couple of colleagues invested thousands of hours in organizing and indexing the company's engineering archives. That effort provided the source material for this book.

Much of the book is concerned with what Mr. Connors regards as P&WA's four "defining moments":

  • The founding of the company (1925)
  • The WWII effort (1939-1945)
  • The transition to turbine power (1947-1958)
  • Winning the F100 engine program (1968-)
R-4360 Wasp Major
The author uses many first hand accounts to bring these "moments" (several of which stretched over years) to life. We learn how and why Frederick Rentschler started the company and how George Mead and Andy Willgoos inspired both the design brilliance of the great radial engines and the incredible industrial effort that saw P&WA engines supply 50% of the installed horsepower in the WWII aircraft fleet.

We learn, in a really suspenseful sequence, how the company started the gas turbine era desperately far behind GE and Westinghouse, and how Luke Hobbs and Perry Pratt led the engineering effort that produced the J-57 engine for Boeing's B-52 Stratofortress - an engine that represented both a "bet the company" program and a quantum advance in turbojet performance.

The J-57 in its commercial guise (as the JT-3) went on to power both the Boeing 707 and the DC-8 (and the rest, as they say, is history).

TF-30 Afterburning Turbofan
And, in the usual manner of technical evolution, the J-57 turbojet led to the TF-33 turbofan (power for the C-141 Starlifter), which was scaled down and provided with an afterburner to produce the TF-30 that occupied my time for a year. And the TF-30 (power for, among others, the F-111 and the F-14 Tomcat) was the parent of the F-100 that went into the F-15 and F-16 and led to other advanced engine programs.
JT-9D High-bypass Turbofan

While one must respect the author's conclusions, I'd have proposed the development (well described here) of the JT-9D high-bypass turbofan during the same years that the F100 was evolving, as a much more significant milestone. The JT-9D powered the first Boeing 747's that arguably revolutionized commercial air travel, and its technical "DNA" can be seen in every large airliner turbofan to this day.

Mr. Connors' book provides only an overview (certainly an interesting one) of the piston engine era. It was before his watch, so to speak, and he paints with a broad brush and suggests other references to fill in the details. But his technical history of the first 35 years of the turbine era at Pratt & Whitney is masterful, and for that era, this will be an essential reference.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Could you please tell me if there is an illustration/photo of the P&W J57 P21A that was used in F100C,s and F100D's in Viet Nam?