Pratt & Whitney's Middletown Engine Center is a place that customers and industry leaders always want to see. With state-of-the-art manufacturing and assembly lines and mammoth test facilities, the Middletown plant has long been on the leading edge of technology. While the facility now stands as a vibrant showcase of modern manufacturing, it also boasts an interesting history.
At the height of the Cold War, atomic energy was considered a vital technology with almost limitless promise. The USS Nautilus, the world's first atomic submarine, had slid down the way at Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut. Navy surface ships would be next. Utilities were beginning to build nuclear power plants that would make electricity so cheap it would not even have to be metered. Naturally visionaries believed this incredible energy source could be adopted for aviation.
The Pentagon envisioned a bomber that could stay airborne almost indefinitely to provide instant nuclear retaliation. The Air Force and the Atomic Energy Commission set Pratt & Whitney to work on a nuclear aircraft engine concept as early as 1951. General Electric was also given a contract. The research required a new, large facility. It had to be within 50 miles of Hartford, "but not in the immediate vicinity of Hartford." In 1955 the Atomic Energy Commission broke ground for CANEL, referenced as both the Connecticut Advanced Nuclear Engine Laboratory and Connecticut Aircraft Nuclear Engine Laboratory in Pratt & Whitney employee publications, on a 1,000 acre site on the Connecticut River in Middletown. Eventually, 2,500 Pratt & Whitney people worked there for the Atomic Energy Commission.
A great deal of experimental work was done, but no complete engine/reactor was ever built. By the early 1960s there were increasing doubts about the safety of such a system or the need for it. By then the "nuclear triad" of land and sea-launched ICBMS and the B-52/KC-135 was more than sufficient. President John Kennedy cancelled the program in 1961 saying that despite a billion dollars in research prospects for success was still "very remote."
In 1966, Pratt & Whitney bought the site. The company was developing a new high-bypass turbofan, larger than anything else the company had built. It was not considered practical to modify the East Hartford plant, so a whole facility was planned for the old CANEL site. The engine, the JT9D, was aimed at the new Air Force transport. But Pratt & Whitney lost that competition to GE and Boeing lost to Lockheed which built the C-5. Boeing then converted its prototype into the commercial JT9D-powered 747. The Middletown plant was off and running and it has not stopped since.
The modernization and transformation that is taking place in the Middletown facility today is built on the modernization and transformation that took place before. In 1969, the employee publication "Bee Hive" described the Middletown test cells as "the most advanced test cells anywhere in the world." At the time a new "plug in" concept was introduced where all instrumentation, ducts, drainage collection system, bellmouth and other test equipment were installed on the test frame while the engine was on the preparation line. Once locked in the test cell, setup time was reduced from one and a half hours to six minutes. It also marked the move to a computerized system from a manual system that previously required three operators eight to 10 hours to calibrate manually. The computer took 15 seconds to calibrate.
The introduction of each new engine brings advances in technology and production, a theme seen time and again as the Middletown facility has been reinvented. Nearly five decades ago, Pratt & Whitney purchased a new generation of equipment unlike anything at its other facilities to build the JT9D. Today, as the facility prepares for the coming industrial ramp, another transformation has positioned the facility for the future.
In just two years, the test facility was completely redesigned and the engine center was upgraded to deliver high-volume, automated lines. This includes the installation of a brand new horizontal assembly line inspired by the auto industry. Pratt & Whitney will host a ribbon cutting ceremony later this week to recognize this transformation.
The Middletown, Connecticut, facility looks different today than it did in the 1950s, but what is unchanged is Pratt & Whitney's committment to being a manufacturing leader.