This Day in History: Fifty Years Ago, '54K a Must or Bust'

Thursday, June 12, 2014

On this day 50 years ago, June 12, 1964, Pratt & Whitney formally announced that it had received contracts from the Federal Aviation Administration to design and develop engines for a supersonic transport (SST).

This was part of a huge national effort to build an American SST. The nation's pride was on the line. Europe was building the Concorde and the Russians were working on the Tupolev Tu-144, sometimes dubbed "Concordski." Industry leaders feared that supersonic transports would wipe out the market for traditional jets. There had to be an American entry in the race.

The government enlisted both Pratt & Whitney and GE in the engine work. Meanwhile, Boeing and Lockheed focused on the aircraft studies, especially the economics and environmental footprint of an SST. At Pratt & Whitney the job was handed to the Florida Research and Development Center, which had extensive experience in supersonic flight. Signs and buttons soon sprouted up all over the West Palm Beach facility stating, "54K a Must or Bust," referring to the 54,000 pound thrust requirement. By March 1966 the first JTF17 was running. The team optimistically shipped off the final test data in December, and then was bitterly disappointed after Christmas to learn GE had won.

The loss was seen as a major blow to Pratt & Whitney's future. By 1971, however, the issues of sonic boom, emissions in the ozone layer and lousy economics killed the U.S. program. Meanwhile, Europe's success was also questionable. Twenty Concordes were built and flown by Air France and British Airways, however it was unclear how profitable the programs were. The Concorde was withdrawn from service after a horrific crash in Paris in July 2000. The Russian Tu-144 had a similar fate with a disastrous crash at the 1973 Paris Air Show and another one in May 1978. The plane made a grand total of 102 commercial flights, only 55 with passengers. The Soviet government dropped the program in 1983.