Jumpseat: Checking Under the Hood
The opportunity for me to touch and feel the inner workings of the machinery providing the thrust that keeps me airborne had always seemed an interesting proposition. With Pratt & Whitney (P&W) practically in my backyard, that possibility became a reality.
On the aviation-is-a-small-world front, I was fortunate to have established a relationship with a P&W engineer who had purchased a Piper Arrow from my airplane neighbor and friend Don Larson. That relationship was of great assistance in granting me a factory tour and an intimate glimpse under the hood. It also afforded me the opportunity to see the company’s latest flagship product — the geared turbofan engine. The engine would soon be attached to the wings of an Airbus A319neo or A321neo (new engine option) near me — well, maybe ... if my airline makes the choice.
The P&W property is located in an area of Middletown, Connecticut, that is deliberately secluded and off the beaten track — but not for reasons you might think. The property and most of the original buildings were once owned by the U.S. government. Its purpose? To build a nuclear-powered jet engine. The engine didn’t quite materialize. By 1962, the United States had gotten distracted with a different type of nuclear issue taking shape in Cuba. P&W bought the facility shortly thereafter.
The architecture is 1950s-austere but very functional for P&W’s purposes. Inheriting the tar-soaked, wood-block floors proved problematic, however. The floor hides dropped parts. The process of removing the old floor and replacing it with concrete that is painted gray is ongoing. The gray and the concrete do a better job of revealing escaped parts.
The factory is approximately 2.2 million square feet. For obvious reasons, it is climate-controlled. Space is divided according to the engine type that demands the highest production rate. A change in engine production requires millions in capital investment to readjust the assembly line. Space is also divided into small, medium and large commercial engine assembly. And the military has its own area, hence their not allowing my Nikon to accompany me.
Rolls-Royce and Pratt still share half the production of the V2500, the engine that powers the A319, A320, A321 and MD-90. Rolls-Royce ships parts to Pratt and vice versa. Rolls takes credit for the odd serial numbers and P&W for the even ones.
Similar to Boeing’s procedures, Pratt has adopted a very safe and pragmatic building process. Each engine has a given number of assembly stations. Each station is supplied with multitiered carts. The carts contain parts in sealed bins. Color-coding is utilized to match engine parts with the appropriate engine. Numbers designate each assembly station.
An extra bolt remaining or a bolt missing is not treated with a simple shoulder shrug. Pratt considers it a serious matter. If a mechanic experiences either situation, assembly of that engine ceases. An independent inspection is required.
As I took in the sights of the tour, I couldn’t put a finger on it, but something was missing. It wasn’t until the conclusion of the visit that Jim Speich, director of marketing and my tour guide with an engineering background, gave me the answer. Toolboxes were nowhere to be found. Not one sticker-laden, towering Snap-On toolbox was anywhere in sight. Instead, the mechanic’s sacred container of his most valued professional investment had been replaced by a package sealed with plastic wrap. The package contains all the specific tools required for a given assembly station.
To save wear and tear on a mechanic’s back and to prevent awkward reaching situations, the engine is assembled vertically on top of a platform that lowers into the floor, allowing easy access to any section. An iris is utilized to isolate a particular section. Newer platforms make use of hovercraft technology. Air pressure floats the platform. The entire engine assembly can be moved almost effortlessly to the next station.
Most of P&W’s mechanics have 25 years of experience with the company and are over the age of 50. A younger workforce is slowly replacing the veterans. New mechanics are hired with the qualifications of either an A&P certificate or six to 10 years of military experience. Once hired, a new mechanic is required to complete a six-month internship. The internship is divided into two three-month periods under two different veteran mechanics.