Pratt (or Rentschler) Day

‘Media Day’ at Pratt & Whitney headquarters was yesterday. I was there and so were 10 top Pratt executives and about other 15 reporters.

After a mercifully brief corporate presentation in the morning, reporters got paired up with half-hour individual interviews with sector presidents for space, military, commercial, engineering and so forth.

One executive called it the PR equivalent of “speed dating”.

Fun fact: the founder of Pratt & Whitney was not named Pratt or Whitney. It was a man named Rentschler. I asked several people, but no one could tell me why a man named Rentschler would go to all the trouble of creating an engine company only to name his own company “Pratt & Whitney”.

As an employee for a British defense (oops, I mean ‘defence’) publishing company called Jane’s, I might be a little sensitive to the oddities of company names.

Finally, a Pratt executive I met at media day knew the answer. I never got the executive’s name, but he must not be too important at Pratt because he was the only executive forced to sit with a table full of journalists for lunch.

He explained that Rentschler was not an engineer, but had the brilliant thought that an air-cooled engine could solve a lot of problems for the fledgling aviation business. Rentschler’s brother was a banker, who gave his sibling the capital he needed to buy a machine and tooling shop. The shop was called Pratt & Whitney. The company went on to build the Wasp engine, which revolutionized the technology of aircraft engines.

These days, Pratt & Whitney has another big idea: the geared turbofan engine. The company believes this is the technology that will propel (pardon the pun) the company back into the commercial airliner business, after losing its footing in the 1980s by sticking too long with the JT8D despite the arrival of the GE/Snecma CFM56.

Modern turbofans work by splitting the airflow into air that bypasses the engine core and the air that goes through the engine core. The larger the ratio of air that bypasses the core, the more efficient an engine can be at subsonic speeds. By introducing a gear into the turbofan, Pratt is seeking to double or triple the ratio, making any airliner instantly about 20-25 percent more efficient.

If the technology works, Pratt will have a great product to put on the market early in the next decade just as Boeing and Airbus unveil the next-generation of single-aisle airliners to replace the B737 and A320. If the technology fails, Pratt will be in big trouble, with no viable commercial engine business after the V2500 passes its prime.

Er, no pressure.

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One Response to Pratt (or Rentschler) Day

  1. Bill Sweetman 29 March, 2007 at 12:44 pm #

    Back when General Electric owned the Gatling gun factory in Burlington, they still had some P&W machine tools. Probably GDATP still does – it’s not the world’s fastest changing business.

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