LIQUID HYDROGEN AS A PROPULSION FUEL,1945-1959

 

Part II : 1950-1957

8. Suntan

 

 

Air Force Moves Fast

 

[142] The high-flying U-2 was the latest symbol of Johnson's ability to design and build a new airplane quickly in his unique and unconventional Skunk Works. Familiar with hydrogen from conducting airplane design studies for Rae and Garrett, Johnson was impressed with its potential. Early in 1956, armed with a proposal for a hydrogenfueled supersonic airplane as a follow-on to the U-2, he visited the Pentagon where he had no difficulty seeing high Air Force officials, including Lt. Gen. Donald L. Putt, the deputy chief of staff for development.2 Johnson offered to build two prototype hydrogen-fueled airplanes, with the first to fly within 18 months. They would fly at an altitude of 30 300 meters, a speed of Mach 2.5, and have a range of 4070 kilometers.3 To the Air Force, which had missed the opportunity to buy Johnson's original U-2 proposal, the offer was too tempting to resist; they bought it.

 

New airplanes, however, are not bought without due deliberation. The Air Force went through the proper motions, but the circumstances made the outcome a foregone conclusion. After receiving the proposal, Putt called a meeting on 18 January 1956. Among those present were his counterpart for materiel, Lt. Gen. Clarence S. Irvine; Lt. Gen. Thomas S. Power, head of the Air Research and Development Command; and Col. Norman C. Appold, head of Wright Air Development Center's power plant laboratory. The purpose of the meeting was to evaluate Johnson's proposal, but in his opening remarks, Putt made it clear that the Air Force wanted a new high-altitude airplane within two or three years, whether or not it was the one that Johnson proposed.4

 

The short time that Putt specified was in keeping with Johnson's reputation, but incredibly short if liquid hydrogen, with its array of formidable problems, was to be the fuel. Engine development was considered the pacing item and the reason Appold, the Air Force's chief propulsion expert, had been summoned to the meeting.

 

Putt wanted six months of study and experimentation to determine the feasibility of attaining the performance goals specified by Johnson. He named Col. Ralph Nunziato, a former test pilot and a member of his staff handling intelligence-gathering equipment, to be his project officer. Power named Appold to head the ARDC team, a clear indication of the critical importance of the propulsion system to the overall effort.

 

Appold's first assignment was to select a qualified engine manufacturer to study a hydrogen-fueled engine and if feasible, develop it. Given a month to do this by Putt, Appold selected two candidates: the General Electric Company and the Pratt &[143] Whitney division of United Aircraft. He met with their representatives,* asked for and received proposals within two weeks, evaluated them, and selected Pratt & Whitney. He reported his actions at another meeting in Putt's office on 20 February, and the selection was approved.5

 

Contract negotiations with Pratt & Whitney started early in April and by the first of May, a six-month contract had been signed. Agreement was also reached with Lockheed. Officials of Pratt & Whitney, impressed with the potential of hydrogen and wishing to avoid the red-tape of a cost-plus-fixed-fee contract, agreed to a fixed cost contract. As it turned out, their costs exceeded the fixed amount and Pratt & Whitney lost money** Lockheed held out for a provisional contract that could be renegotiated and repriced at the end of the contract. Both firms, however, were hard at work by the first of April 1956. The contracts were made retroactive, to cover the fast start.6

 

In the weeks that followed the initial meeting in February, Appold and Nunziato were very busy dealing with the two companies and consulting with specialists at the Wright Air Development Center on the feasibility of providing large quantities of liquid hydrogen. Although Appold continued as head of the power plant laboratory, it was clear that his new assignment would soon require full attention, as well as a staff. He chose Lt. Col. John D. Seaberg, the aeronautical engineer assigned to weapon systems who had started work on high-altitude aircraft in 1952 (pp.113-14), to manage work on flight-type liquid hydrogen tanks, airframe, and complete airplane systems. Major Alfred J. Gardner, a combat pilot during World War II, holder of two master's degrees in engineering, and a propulsion specialist, was chosen to manage the engine development. Capt. Jay R. Brill, West Pointer, mechanical and nuclear engineer, would manage the logistics, including the quantity production of liquid hydrogen and its storage, transportation, and handling. The team worked initially at Wright Field and moved to ARDC headquarters in Baltimore in June, as a special projects office.7

 

Considering the highly classified U-2 and the Air Force's desire to build a superior airplane, it is not surprising that the new project was very closely held. It was given a special classification higher than "Top Secret," the highest standard category. Full access,was limited to about 25 people, an extremely small number considering the size and complexity of the large research and development effort.8

 

Two compelling reasons beyond technical management and Air Force security called for a special projects office: fast contractual action and contractor security. To get an airplane developed in the two or three years that Putt demanded meant bypassing the normal, but time-consuming, management and procurement processes. Appold turned to Col. Lee Fulton, head of procurement at ARDC Headquarters and his deputy, Robert Miedel, for help; Miedel served as temporary procurement officer. They soon had a blanket "determination and findings" statement from Richard Horner, assistant secretary of the Air Force for research and development, and [144] directives from the Air Force deputy chiefs of staff for development and materiel, Putt and Irvine. These authorities allowed the Suntan team to waive normal procurement procedures and award contracts directly, with a minimum of review. This cut months from the procurement process.

 

Miedel bowed out in June 1956 by appointing William E. Miller as contracting officer and negotiator on all Suntan contracts, and Lt. Col. J. R. Beyers as head of contract management. Two special auditors were assigned by the Auditor General. Miller's group also handled property and contractor security.9

 

Extraordinary measures were taken to conceal Suntan from the curious and the unauthorized. The Suntan team at ARDC changed project numbers from time to time; some contracts were written through other Air Force offices, so they could not be related to Suntan. At contractor plants, Suntan workers were isolated and guarded from other units and operated as independently as possible. Special measures were taken to prevent identification of Suntan visitors by those not connected with the project.*** Documentation was kept to a minimum.10

 


* Jack Parker, Gen. Mgr., Aircraft Gas Turbines Div., General Electric Co., and Charles Dribble, a G.E. engineer; Wright Parkins, William Gwinn, and Perry Pratt & Whitney.

** Pratt & Whitney received $15.3 million for the first phase of work and spent $17.1 million. Interview, Ernest Schweibert with Lt. Richard Doll. Dec. 1958.

*** Of numerous stories of security incidents, one of the most interesting involved a good-looking female engineer of the Skunk Works who almost-and inadvertently-blew Suntan's cover. She attended a symposium on hydrogen at the NBS Cryogenics Laboratory and following established practice of the Skunk Works, registered as representing herself. Standing nearby was a male engineer who knew she worked for Lockheed but had forgotten her name. He peeked at the register and immediately grew suspicious, wondering why Lockheed was interested in hydrogen and hiding it. Interview awith Col. Gardner, 19 Sept. 1973.


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