Ending the Pratt & Whitney engine program that came 'just in time'
It was April 23, 1991, when Pratt & Whitney's future changed in an instant.
The Air Force that day announced that its new advanced tactical fighter jet would be built by Lockheed Martin and powered by Pratt's F119 engine, a decades-long production program employing thousands that analysts said came right in time for the company as it was losing market share to competitors.
On Thursday, executives from Pratt along with representatives from Lockheed, Boeing and the Air Force plan to hail the 507th and final imprint of the engine at the company's assembly facilities in Middletown. Pairs of engines equipped more than 180 of the military's F-22 Raptors -- far less than originally planned -- with robust, durable engines that gave the aircraft surprising agility.
But back in the 1980s, a homerun engine program was nowhere to be found at Pratt. General Electric, the company's main rival, outfitted the most of the military's engines through the F-15 and F-16 and made strides to erode Pratt's strength in the commercial market share.
"If you look at the history of Pratt back in the 1980s it was on the losing side of the great engine war," said Mark Bobbi, an aerospace analyst with MB Strategy. "Pratt was getting bashed by the press and customers."
The competition to outfit the Air Force's new tactical fighter attracted proposals from Pratt and General Electric. This would be the military's next major fighter aircraft, set to replace the existing F-15s and compete with the technology being used by Soviet Union jets.
For the engine, GE put forward a complex, variable-cycle engine. Pratt offered a simpler, easier to maintain engine, though the first U.S. jet to feature a vectoring nozzle, which in tilting engines' exhaust up or down gave the aircraft more agility and stealth.
And the Air Force went with Pratt.
Some said that Pratt was chosen because of the less-risky nature of the engine. Others said the Department of Defense chose it because it knew a loss to Pratt would weaken it as a military engine supplier and hurt the competition in the industry.
"If Pratt had lost, I would bet you almost 100 percent that George David would have sold Pratt & Whitney," said Bobbi, referring to the chief executive of Pratt's parent company, United Technologies, who took over in 1994. "It gave them a core base of business upon which to rebuild and help fund their re-emergence in the commercial business which we are seeing now, 20 years later."
Pratt's work with the F-16 would have wrapped up soon leaving "Pratt with no real production fighter engine business," said Bill Storey, aerospace analyst at the Teal Group, who specializes in turbines. "It kept them in the game."
To Pratt it was more than just a shot in the arm. "It was the pathway for us to power the F-35," the Joint Strike Fighter, said Bennett Croswell, head of Pratt's military engine division, in an interview on Wednesday.
He moved from Pratt's West Palm Beach plant to Connecticut in 2000 to run the F119 program. Asked whether he thought Pratt would have won the engine contract for the Joint Strike Fighter without the F119 win, Croswell said, "I don't think we would have."
The F119 "being the first fifth generation afterburning fighter engine with low observability, it gave us a significant advantage", he said. Analysts said the fact that the engine didn't have major problems also helped Pratt win the Joint Strike Fighter.
The Joint Strike Fighter's engine, the F135, which Pratt won an exclusive contract to built in 2006, was modeled off the F119 and is using many of the same suppliers, Croswell said.
Production of the F-22s ramped up, with early estimates of unit costs low because the military would purchase at least 750 of them. But over time, order numbers were cut either Congress or the Department of Defense, first to 648 in 1990, then 339 in 1997, 277 in 2003 and finally 183 in 2004. And as production rates slowed, unit costs for the aircraft rose.
The wrapping up of the F119 program, though celebrated this week, has had effects for months. In December, citing the end of the program's production, the Pratt shed 100 hourly jobs through layoffs and buyouts.
This week, Pratt laid off 350 salaried workers -- including 200 in Connecticut, in the company's lull in production between the related F119 and F135 programs.
Croswell said that if the F-22 order numbers hadn't been cut so soon and production continued, the company could have avoided some of the recent layoffs. He said the next three or four years will be slower until the company's big military and commercial engine programs are put into full production.