Part II : 1950-1957

7. New Initiatives in High-Altitude Aircraft



Garrett Loses the Fight


[135] The 15 February 1956 presentation was the turning point. Garrett's relationship with the Air Force would be downhill from that time on. Both sides had begun the relationship with great expectations and in good faith; but step by step, the size and complexity of Garrett's proposed engines grew and ultimately destroyed the company's prospects. On the Air Force side, the need to involve a well-established engine manufacturer was seen as early as August 1954, but it took time for this position to become the dominant consideration.


Nine days after Garrett's presentation, members of the power plant laboratory staff reported to Col. Harold Robbins of ARDC headquarters. Robbins, in turn, was to brief Gen. Thomas S. Power, ARDC's commander, on 27 February. Frank Patella was among those who talked with Robbins and he noted in his diary the main points of the briefing: Garrett did not have the facilities for component tests, the tools to manufacture, or the experience needed for the large engine, Rex III. There was considerable doubt among the Air Force propulsion experts that Garrett could develop such capability in time to meet the urgent need, for all agreed that the development of a special engine for high altitude operation merited a crash program. Robbins presumably conveyed these conclusions to Power in his briefing three days later.


Back at Wright Field, power plant experts continued their analysis of the Rex engine and Garrett's capabilities to develop it. On 1 March 1956, General Haugen, commander of WADC, was briefed on the Rex situation by B.A. Wolfe of the power plant laboratory. The Rex I engine, 60 centimeters in diameter, had been considered within Garrett's capabilities; but the 150-centimeter Rex III was clearly beyond Garrett's development and production facilities. The consensus was that to proceed with the Rex III development by Garrett would be sheer folly. On 5 March 1956 another conference took place, this time between working level personnel from the development and material groups. The participants again concluded that Garrett did not then have the capability to develop the engine and that it might take 8-10 years to [136] develop it unless a crash program were started. The power plant laboratory representatives pointed out that other engine manufacturers were now proposing essentially the same type of engine as Rex III.53 The problem was being studied at all Air Force levels, from headquarters on down.


In the midst of these conferences, Garrett received a serious blow. The company had been urging the government to provide a liquid hydrogen plant on the government-owned land within their Phoenix facility. The city of Phoenix learned of this proposal and acted to prohibit Garrett from working with hydrogen within the city limits. This development set off a new round of conferences and staff studies within the government. On 22 March 1956, Lt. Gen. Power, commander of ARDC, recommended to the Air Materiel Command that a favorable atmosphere be sought whereby a major engine manufacturer could acquire Garrett's and Rae's interests in the Rex engine. If this could be done, the Garrett contract could be terminated and proposals solicited from major engine manufacturers.54 Power's proposal was backed by a detailed staff study.55 Philip Richie, at the working level in AMC, objected to the conclusions of the staff study and wrote a point-by-point rebuttal. Richie recommended that a committee be appointed to make a detailed study of the problem and use it either to convince Garrett that it was in the country's best interest to go elsewhere or use it to explain to others why the Air Force stayed with Garrett. On 10 May, Richie's recommendation was backed by his boss, Col. Merle R. Williams, WADC procurement chief, so the Air Force remained locked in an internal struggle over what to do about Garrett.56


Meanwhile, Bertram N. Snow, vice president of the Garrett Corporation, wrote to WADC on 12 May 1956, pointing out several problems. A remote facility was required to test with hydrogen; since none was presently available, there would be a considerable delay in carrying out the existing contract. He proposed to amend the contract to allow engine development of a prototype meeting the 50-hour test specification and to authorize the necessary facilities. If a hydrogen generating plant could not be provided by the government, Snow proposed to try for a commercial product on contract. He estimated that the prototype engine could be developed in four years, with a program and facility cost of $72.5 million. Garrett followed up this proposal with a presentation two days later: the Garrett board of directors had decided that while the company could not handle large-scale production of the engine, it could handle limited production. Two engine manufacturers had made overtures to Garrett but had been rebuffed.57


Sometime in the spring, the perceptive Snow sensed the changed Air Force attitudes towards Garrett. He and Rae visited General Power in Baltimore to protest. Power listened to them and promised that they would receive a reply, but that it would come from General Rawlings of the Air Materiel Command. The meeting with Rawlings was held on 18 May 1956, and Snow was told bluntly that timely and successful development of the proposed engine could be done only by a major engine manufacturer. On 18 June, Snow wrote a strong letter of protest to Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Materiel, Dudley C. Sharpe, stating Garrett's position and included a chronology of events. He made five points: (1) Garrett owned patent rights, (2) the Air Force had encouraged Garrett to develop the Rex engine, (3) Air Force [137] working level organizations had ignored Garrett's proprietary rights,* (4) Garrett's performance had been satisfactory, and (5) Garrett was willing to negotiate in the public interest. The thrust of Snow's letter was two proposals that eliminated the need for the government to furnish facilities. The first proposed that Garrett be given the prime contract for engine development, and Garrett would subcontract to a larger engine manufacturer any work it could not handle. The second proposed that Garrett be given the engine production contract and if production needs exceeded what Garrett could provide with its own resources, then Garrett would license a larger engine manufacturer to make the additional units.58


This appeal to Sharpe and visits to high-level government officials by Garrett officials did little to resolve the basic issues. Although Garrett continued working on its original contract, with several extensions, that work was essentially out of the mainstream of Air Force R&D projects. Phase I of the Garrett contract, engine analyses and selection, had been completed and presented on 15 February 1956.59 Phase II, a thorough and comprehensive preliminary design study of the Rex III engine, was completed in May 1956.60 Phase III, to design, fabricate, and test combustors, turbines, fuel pumps, gear boxes, and heat exchangers, continued until 1 February 1957, when the objectives were revised to be general research and development rather than specific to the Rex III engine design. On 18 October 1957, Garrett received a directive to stop all work on the contract except for the preparation of a final report. This report, in several volumes, was completed in 1958.61


* This was apparently with reference to an analysis by R.P. Carmichael, which will be discussed later. Garrett was also disturbed over the governmentís attitudes towards its patent rights.