Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Engines

Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Engines

In April 1925, Frederick Rentschler, an Ohio native and former executive at Wright Aeronautical, was determined to start an aviation-related business of his own. His social network included Edward Deeds, another prominent Ohioan of the early aviation industry, and Frederick’s brother Gordon Rentschler, both of whom were on the board of Niles Bement Pond, then one of the largest machine tool corporations in the world. Frederick Rentschler approached these men as he sought capital and assets for his new venture. Deeds and G. Rentschler persuaded the board of Niles Bement Pond that their Pratt & Whitney Machine Tool subsidiary of Hartford, Connecticut, should provide the funding and location to build a new aircraft engine being developed by Rentschler, George J. Mead, and colleagues, all formerly of Wright Aeronautical. Conceived and designed by Mead, the new engine would be a large, air-cooled, radial design. Pratt & Whitney Machine Tool was going through a period of self-revision at the time to prepare itself for the post–Great War era, discontinuing old product lines and incubating new ones. The Great War had been profitable to P&WMT, but the peace brought a predictable glut to the machine tool market, as contracts with governments were canceled and the market in used, recently built tools competed against new ones. P&WMT’s future growth would depend on innovation. Having idle factory space and capital available at this historical moment, to be invested wherever good return seemed available, P&WMT saw the postwar aviation industry, both military and civil (commercial, private), as one with some of the greatest growth and development prospects available anywhere for the next few decades. It lent Rentschler $250,000, the use of the Pratt & Whitney name, and space in their building. This was the beginning of the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Company. Pratt & Whitney Aircraft’s first engine, the 425 horsepower (317 kW) R-1340 Wasp, was completed on Christmas Eve 1925. On its third test run it easily passed the Navy qualification test in March 1926; by October, the Navy had ordered 200. The Wasp exhibited performance and reliability that revolutionized American aviation. The R-1340 powered the aircraft of Wiley Post, Amelia Earhart, and many other record flights.

The R-1340 was followed by another very successful engine, the R-985 Wasp Junior. Eventually a whole Wasp series was developed. Both engines are still in use in agricultural aircraft around the world and produce more power than their original design criteria. (Replacement parts for both engines are still in production and it is theoretically possible to assemble a new engine from the parts.)

George Mead soon led the next step in the field of large, state-of-the-art, air-cooled, radial aircraft engines (which the Wasp dominated) when Pratt & Whitney released its R-1690 Hornet. It was basically “a bigger Wasp”.

In 1929, Rentschler ended his association with Pratt & Whitney Machine Tool and merged Pratt & Whitney Aircraft with Boeing and other companies to form the United Aircraft and Transport Corporation. His agreement allowed him to carry the Pratt & Whitney name with him to his new corporation.

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