Saturday, October 24, 2015

Book Review: History of Aircraft Gas Turbine Engine Development in the United States

James St. Peter
The History of Aircraft Gas Turbine Engine Development in the United States - A Tradition of Excellence
Atlanta, GA: International Gas Turbine Institute, 1999
Category: Aviation History

Rating: 4-Stars

The development of the gas turbine has been pivotal to the development of modern aviation - yet has under-appreciated by many, even within the aerospace industry.  The technology that goes into a modern jet engine evolved across decades of development, on a road marked by both stunning successes and tragic failures.  This book attempts to chronicle not only the development of the U.S. jet engine industry, but also the evolution of the underlying technology that goes into the modern jet engine.

The book begins with the humble beginnings of U.S. jet engine manufacture, which drew heavily on designs developed previously by Rolls-Royce in the U.K., and built subsequently under license in the U.S.  In those early days of the jet engine, it seemed as if every aircraft and engine manufacturer expected to be part of the new jet engine age.  Lockheed - best known as an aircraft developer - had their own jet engine division.  Curtiss-Wright, which had developed both aircraft and piston-powered engines during World War II, likewise had its own jet engine department.  One by one, however, virtually all of these early developers fell to the wayside, leaving a handful of dedicated jet engine manufacturers in this highly competitive field.

A good example of the lessons of these early attempts is afforded by Westinghouse Aviation.  As a manufacturer of steam turbines for power generation, Westinghouse (like General Electric) had a natural advantage at the dawn of the jet age.  Westinghouse developed the J30 - the first successful jet engine to be designed independently by a U.S. manufacturer.  For the first half-decade of jet engine development, it appeared as if Westinghouse was on its way to becoming a leading player in this market, winning one contract after another for the supply of jet engines for U.S. Navy fighter aircraft.  All of this came tumbling down, however, when Westinghouse failed to deliver on the J40 - an engine slated to power a host of new U.S. Navy fighters during the 1950s.  As the new, higher-thrust engines demanded ever increasing compression ratios, Westinghouse discovered that they had failed to invest in the underlying technologies necessary to remain competitive.  Westinghouse subsequently exited the jet engine market, never to return.

James St. Peter's historic survey consequently chronicles just how complex and challenging the design of a jet engine truly is.  Today, there are only two manufacturers for high thrust, high performance jet engines remaining in the United States - plus two other manufacturers best known in the smaller, business jet marketplace.  These consist of General Electric and Pratt & Whitney Aircraft on the high-thrust end of the market, with Honeywell (formerly Garrett) and Rolls-Royce's North American Division (formerly Allison) in the business jet engine market.  To this day, the development of a modern, high performance jet engine constitutes a technical challenge which few in the world have the resources to master.

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