30 Years Later, an Engine Program Continues to Go Beyond
It was 1982, and Boeing and Airbus were asking for a new, more powerful commercial engine. So Pratt & Whitney got to work, and a new program was launched in December.
"We were working on an engine called an 'improved JT9D,'" said Joe Snyder, currently a manager for customer technical service for the Geared Turbofan™ program. "It became the PW4000."
As it turned out, the new engine would have some similarities to the JT9D, but engineers also borrowed a few ideas from other engine programs as well. By the time it was over, the engine would have about half as many parts of the JT9D while providing 48,000 to 60,000 pounds of thrust.
"They basically started with a clean piece of paper and took some of the design features from the PW2000 as well as the more robust design featured of the JT9D and kind of married those together," said Keith Lingstrom, former program manager for the 94-inch PW4000.
In April of 1984, the work roared to life, as the PW4000 94-inch engine ran for the first time. Clearly, there was a buzz that hard work was paying dividends, as the engine was one step closer to getting airborne.
"It was kind of the second generation of the high bypass engine. It came around at a time in the mid 1980s when we went fly-by-wire, electronic engine controls. It was breaking new ground in that regard. Basically, it was like going from carburetors to fuel injection," said Anthony King, PW4000 112-inch fleet chief.
In August of 1985 the PW4000 would take its first flight. Less than a year later, it would receive FAA certification. By June of 1987, the PW4000 entered revenue service, starting a 30-year tradition of powering large commercial aircraft.
"It went fast and furious, very similar to what we are seeing with the Geared Turbofan. We quickly had multiple installations on multiple airplanes," Snyder said.
Interestingly enough, in one particular case, the engine served as a tool for a dramatic comeback for one well-established airframer.
"The MD-11, which was named the 'Spirit of Hartford' by McDonnell-Douglas when it first came out because of the PW4000 and what it meant to the Douglas company. That engine made the airplane," said Jim Speich, senior marketing manager at Pratt & Whitney. McDonnell-Douglas merged with Boeing in 1997.
Now, 30 years later, the 94-inch PW4000 and the larger variants that followed, the 100-inch and 112-inch, continues to glide through skies. Success comes from what you might expect. It's a well-engineered, maintainable, reliable jet engine
"We had to get the designers to work with the manufacturing engineers to get it so it's producible so you wouldn't have difficulty making it," said Stuart Maslak, currently an FAA representative for the PW4000 program.
The timeline of the engine also includes one amazing statistic that continues to this day.
"There's an engine that we have that has over 40,000 hours on it. The LPT (lower-pressure turbine) on this engine hasn't been overhauled in over 20 years," said Caitlin Cofiell, program manager for the PW4000.
The United States government also values reliability, so much so that the engine was chosen to power Boeing's KC-46 tanker.
"With the tanker program, we have extended the 94-inch production line another 15 plus years," said Raymond Essig, KC-46 tanker program engine manager.
The common thread through the years always comes down to people: The people who designed it, built it, improved it, maintain it. Some of those key employees still work here, some have retired, yet all of them are connected by 30 years of success. Success that does not come by happenstance, rather by the people go go to work, every day, and allow the wonder of flight to come to life.
"I think it's a great testament to the people of Pratt & Whitney how we carry on these engine programs across generations," said Mary Anne Cannon, vice president, Commercial Engine Programs.
It is an engine program that has impacted leading aviation companies, engineers, passengers, and of course, pilots.
"Years ago, a pilot who was in the area with me came up to me and said, "You're from Pratt & Whitney right?" said Jonathan Kimball, who served as customer support for the 4000 and is now retired. The pilot continued, "I just want to tell you how good I feel about that engine – how that engine holds me and my airplane up. Don't ever stop doing it – don't ever change that eagle."