The engines of Pratt & Whitney star at New England Air Museum

By Leslie B. Placzek - ReminderNews
Windsor Locks - posted Thu., Apr. 7, 2011
Ted Slaiby discusses Pratt and Whitney engines at the New England Air Museum. Photos by Leslie B. Placzek.
Ted Slaiby discusses Pratt and Whitney engines at the New England Air Museum. Photos by Leslie B. Placzek.

A crowd of engineers and aerospace aficionados packed the program room at the New England Air  Museum in Windsor Locks, on Tuesday, April 5, eagerly anticipating a presentation on Pratt and Whitney engines. The evening’s program was co-sponsored by the museum and the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics.

They came to learn – or to recall – Pratt and Whitney’s finest moments from 1925 to 1970, primarily the development of the J-57 engine, which enabled P&W to dominate the aircraft gas turbine market 10 years after World War II.

Jack Connors, a P&W engineer from 1948 to 1983, began the evening by discussing the origins of his book, “The Engines of Pratt and Whitney.”

Faced with preserving the “engine knowledge” of a group of fellow P&W retirees, he and a volunteer developed a computer database from P&W archives, then “put together stories of about 25 guys who knew what really happened” into a book.  

Connors discussed P&W’s “Five Finest Moments,” from Pratt & Whitney Aircraft’s founding in 1925 by Captain Frederick Rentschler and George Mead, to the F-100 engine program in 1970. In the post-World War II years (1945-1957), P&W broke into the gas turbine engine market.

The U.S. Air Force welcomed proposals only for the risky B-52, or “heavy bombardment aircraft” program. “The B-52 Dilemma” graph illustrated that the Air Force wanted range, or distance, as well as speed. The Turboprop had range, but little speed, and the Turbojet had speed but little range. A “B-52 Timeline” showed the evolution of B-52 engines toward the J57 engine that powered the Century Series of fighters and jet aircraft with Boeing and Douglas. 

Connors credited such visionaries as Colonel Henry “Pete” Warden, a WWII fighter pilot, with “conceiving and nurturing the B-52 program through four cancellations” and keeping it in service for 50 years.

“These guys were geniuses,” Connors said. “They made the technology and did the job in time.”

Ted Slaiby, the second speaker, graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1950 and became a P&W engineer as the Korean War began. He discussed how P&W built the J57, showing a diagram of its interior and relating problems such as how to cool the internal combustion system.

Without computers, Slaiby said, “we used slide rules” to solve math problems, and routinely employed “one secretary for every five engineers, because we couldn’t type.”

Slaiby discussed the P&W and engineering organizations at that time, noting “management provided everything we needed. You never heard, ‘What’s this going to cost?’” 

With an emphasis on safety, reliability, and performance, P&W engines were heavier. Engineers tested every component of engines and utilized flight test facilities in East Hartford and California, Slaiby said. 

Later, Harry Schmidt took the floor to address the crowd, advising, “Never follow a loquacious Irishman and a supersmart engineer.”

“What should I talk about?” he began. “Mike [the museum director] said I should talk about 10 minutes.”  An hour later, nearly half the room remained, drawn to Schmidt’s tales of rooming with Ted Slaiby at RPI in the 1940s, flying as an Air Force pilot in the Korean War, then becoming a P&W high-speed test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base, bringing to mind Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book and the 1983 movie, “The Right Stuff.”

“In the movies, Chuck Yeager did every flight test over 50 years.  The reality was different,” said Schmidt. He spoke of near-crash-and-burn flights, white-knuckled first takeoffs, and stalled compressors when flight testing the J57 at too slow a speed.  “I found that an increase in speed was needed to land an F100,” he said. “Going 600 miles per hour at medium altitude… knocks your feet off the pedals.”

He said his “torso was black and blue” from wearing a G-suit, which prevents black-outs caused by blood pooling in the lower body under the g-forces experienced at high acceleration. Schmidt thanked Jack, Ted, and other P&W engineers from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s for contributing to safe air travel.

“‘P and W’ should have been ‘PRW,’ for performance, reliability, and will get you home,” he quipped.

Visitors to the New England Air Museum may see the J57 turbojet on display by the F-100, the first of the century fighters in the late 1950s to use the J57.  Other P&W engines, including the JT3, the commercial version of the J57, also are on display at the museum. 

Visitors may view pictures of engines and aircraft at the Air Museum’s website, www.neam.org.


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