Timely Culture Change and New Management

Late in the afternoon on December 23, 1976, Sikorsky received a telephone call that will likely rank as the most important call in its 90 year history. A call that would completely change not only the destiny of Sikorsky Aircraft but also the destinies of all major American helicopter manufactures as well. That call was from the Contracting Officer at the US Army Aviation Systems Command to inform and congratulate the company that it had been selected to produce the new BLACK HAWK utility helicopter for the US Army.

Previously, in August 1972, the Army had chosen Sikorsky and Boeing over Bell to build and fly competitive prototypes of what was then known as the UTTAS – Utility Tactical Transport Aircraft System.  This was a major coup for the company since other than the S-64 crane helicopter Sikorsky had not had a production contract with the Army for over a decade.  We were thought of as a Navy supplier, and a long shot to win UTTAS. 
Then after more than four grueling years of competition, that included a fly off against the prototypes offered by Boeing Vertol, Sikorsky was awarded a sole-source procurement program to supply the Army with all the utility transport helicopters that it would need for the next ten years and eventually a half century. Sikorsky’s win left the companies who were early favorites to win, Boeing Vertol and Bell, completely eliminated from what would become one of the largest and longest helicopter procurements ever.

There were many reasons why Sikorsky was able to come from behind to win this critical program that was without question a matter of survival for the company at the time. The most important reason was that Sikorsky offered the Army the design that best met its requirements by incorporating the right technologies together with very effective design innovations. Of great significance to the Army was the fact that the Sikorsky offering promised significantly lower risk in making the transition from prototype to production status because its prototypes were more fully demonstrated and proven than were those of its competitor.

These were the stated reasons for selecting Sikorsky’s product.  But a key unstated reason that had little to do with the product was an attitude of trust that began to be developed between the Army technical community and its Sikorsky engineering counterparts during the late 1960s and early 1970s, just prior to and during the BLACK HAWK competition.

That trust was developed and nurtured in large measure by Sikorsky’s willingness, as directed by senior management, to share its internal research and development activities and plans with Army technical personnel.  The purpose of sharing was to get the Army’s inputs to the company’s technology planning and, better yet, to get Army financial support where possible. Similar sharing was done with the Navy with great success in obtaining its financial support in two areas in particular that proved to be critical in winning the BLACK HAWK program. They were the creation and development of the elastomeric main rotor and of the advanced rotor blades that used cambered airfoils and titanium blade spars. Both were developed with a combination of company and government funds.

How did this inclination and direction to share technical plans and information with the customer come about when up to the late 1960s the company culture was just the opposite? Prior to the BLACK HAWK program and before new senior management was installed at Sikorsky, the accepted attitude was to hold technology plans and achievements close to the vest, not to be revealed outside the company. That restrictive culture matured during a somewhat dark time period early in the history of the corporation. During that period such sharing would have been prohibited and probably punished. The origin of that negative culture goes back many years to the 1930s when a new corporation called United Aircraft and Transport was broken apart by the US Government after having achieved a rapid growth cycle across the entire field of aviation.

The Early Years of United Aircraft

The enormous growth of aviation following World War I was based in large measure on propulsion system technology, not unlike the current period. In particular, the engine power-to-weight ratio and specific fuel consumption were the attributes of prime interest to aircraft designers, as they continue to be today. During that early period, engine size was becoming of increasing importance, as aircraft grew larger along with increases in their speeds and operating ranges. Reciprocating engine manufacturers tried to address this need for larger engines, some using liquid-cooled designs and some using air-cooled designs. One of the more successful air-cooled engine builders at that time was the Wright Aeronautical Corporation whose president was Frederick Rentschler and whose chief engineer was George Mead. Both men were aircraft engine pioneers and both were to play major roles in the creation of the highly successful Pratt & Whitney engine business.

Rentschler and Mead left Wright Aeronautical with the intention of building a new 400 horsepower air-cooled engine of Mead’s design. In searching for a new home, they selected the established Pratt & Whitney Company in Hartford Connecticut, which was a successful manufacturer of machine tools for the armament industry since the Civil War. However, by the 1920s P&W was looking for new business. Fortunately it had financial resources for new product investment that enabled it to acquire a 50% stake in the engine business proposed by Rentschler. With this stake, the Pratt & Whitney Aero Engine Company was founded in 1925 and the 400 HP Wasp engine became its first product. P&W has been a major supplier of aviation propulsion systems in both reciprocating and gas turbine engines on a worldwide basis ever since.

The Boeing and United Airlines Connection

Another aviation pioneer, William Boeing, became successful building fixed-wing aircraft in Seattle Washington following World War I. His earliest success during Boeing’s formative period was the Boeing Model 40.  That aircraft was an open seat biplane built in 1925 for a US Post Office competition for airmail delivery. It was initially powered by a water-cooled Liberty engine from WW I surplus inventory but it provided only marginal power. Poor performance with the Liberty engine led to the Model 40A powered by the P&W Wasp air-cooled engine which became an immediate success because of the more powerful but lighter engine. It is of interest to note that one of the reasons behind P&W’s success with air-cooled engines had to do with the design of cylinder head cooling fins, which P&W developed to a very refined state. More effective heat transfer from the cylinders to the atmosphere permitted higher compression ratios resulting in better power-to-weight ratios as well as higher cycle efficiencies. In addition to improving weight and fuel consumption, eliminating the complexity of liquid cooling provided cost and operation savings as well.

With their individual companies beginning to prosper, Rentschler and Boeing turned their attention to a greater goal. That goal was to expand their businesses to include air transport services in addition to building aircraft and engines. To that end they combined their companies to create the United Aircraft and Transport Corporation, which was incorporated on January 19, 1929.

The expansion of that corporation continued over the next several years as they acquired Northrop Aviation, the Stearman Aviation Company, the Chance Vought Corporation and the Sikorsky Aviation Corporation. Rentschler and Boeing also acquired both the Hamilton and the Standard Steel Propeller Companies who were the leading propeller manufacturers at that time.
In addition to aggressively acquiring aviation manufacturing companies, the United Aircraft and Transport Corporation began to purchase numerous small airlines in order to create a single coast-to-coast airline that they named United Airlines. When they were finished with their acquisitions, they had a company that built airplanes, their engines and propellers and that also flew them on their own airlines and to their own airfields. They had created a vertically integrated aviation powerhouse that was supported in large measure by generous government contracts mostly related to the postal service of mail delivery.  United Aircraft and Transport had built up a virtual monopoly in the market.

The Breakup of the United Aircraft and Transport Corporation

The great economic depression of the 1930s created many changes within the government.  Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in 1932 with a hope that he could restore the economy.  A prevalent attitude within the government was that big businesses, especially those corporations that operated as trusts, helped lead to the great depression. As a result the federal government began to break apart the key companies that constituted the United Aircraft and Transport Corp. using anti-trust laws, as it had done with other large corporate trusts earlier in the century.

Anti-trust laws were first passed by congress in 1890 under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.  They were enforced with much vigor during the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) and continued to be enforced through the 1930s.

In a 2009 interview with the Sikorsky archives, Bill Paul, previous Sikorsky president and UTC executive vice president, related some of this history:

“The anti-trusters went after United Aircraft in a big way and broke up UAC.  It was their first major anti-trust action.”  Congress passed the Air Mail Act of 1934 that permanently divorced aircraft manufacturers from airline operators.

United Airlines had to be spun off as a separate company. At the same time, what remained of the corporation was essentially split into two companies: a western unit, the Boeing Airplane Company which included Stearman Aircraft, and an eastern unit, the United Aircraft Corporation which included Pratt & Whitney Aircraft, Hamilton Standard, Chance Vought and Sikorsky Aircraft. Northrop Aircraft became a separate entity.

How United Aircraft Reacted to Its Enforced Breakup

What followed was a profound distrust of the federal government by United Aircraft and its member companies.  Again quoting Bill Paul:
“…the government’s actions resulted in Rentschler and Boeing’s decision to fund and own their research and facilities.  In those days the government not only owned their funded R&D, but they also owned the plants in many cases.  So Rentschler and UAC’s policy was to protect it’s burgeoning commercial business and the policy helped assure that.”

For Sikorsky, that policy was quite successful.  Sikorsky was the first company, in 1942, to successfully develop a helicopter and sell it to the United States government.  That achievement was followed by a number of other successful programs over the next twenty years.  During this period Sikorsky privately funded its research and development activities.   

As Bill continues the story: “[Igor Sikorsky] built an industry based on the single-rotor helicopter concept.  Others had different kinds of rotor systems.  His single rotor; hinged rotor; hinged tail rotor, and his control system were so unique that even when others had won competitions many of them could not produce, and [the customer] would fall back to Mr. Sikorsky.”  And then those programs would result in major design modifications through the Engineering Change Proposal process that resulted in essentially a sole-source series of contracts.  “This approach of simply designing and building the best helicopter, building a prototype and demonstrating it to the customer worked wonderfully and built the industry.”

Time For a Change

Continueing to quote Bill Paul: “…in the 1960s…the procurement process had tightened up substantially…the contracts were so lucrative that no one could be given a sole-source contract.”  Sikorsky entered and lost every major Army competition during the 1950s and 1960s including what became the Bell Huey, the Vertol Chinook and the Hughes Light Observation Helicopter [the OH-6].

“The next loss [in 1965] was humiliating, devastating and pivotal.  We competed and lost the Army’s AAFSS [Advanced Aerial Fire Support System] helicopter, which was a high-speed helicopter with a wing and a rotor… It was the real last straw.  We were competing against Lockheed who had never built a helicopter…Lockheed had developed a “rigid” rotor helicopter.  Lockheed, like Bell and Hughes helicopter companies, had taken part and shared in the Army’s funded research program.  The Army and NASA labs were heavily involved in the rigid rotor development.   So it was not only Lockheed’s rigid rotor but also there was a sense of ownership within the Army and NASA team which evaluated both our proposals.  On the other hand we submitted the same old rotors with aluminum blades and oil lubricated bearings.”

United Aircraft’s management heeded lessons learned from those major competitive losses as they installed new top management at Sikorsky.   “We lost and it was clear that we needed to get on board with our customer and develop new technology which would work and be ready for the next generation helicopter for the Army.  Given the Army’s experience in Viet Nam, they knew exactly what they wanted [when they created the specifications for the Utility Tactical Transport Aircraft  System (UTTAS)] and we were going to give it to them.”

Wes Kuhrt came down from UAC in 1967 to head Sikorsky.  He was the head of the United Aircraft Research Labs.  Bill Gwinn, chairman of United Aircraft, and Jack Horner, president, had this brilliant thought to have him run the Sikorsky Aircraft Division.  “Who could be better able to transform our technology than the corporation’s chief technologist?”  Wes Kuhrt then elevated Jack McKenna to the position of Executive Vice President that was to become critical to Sikorsky’s resurgence. 

“Wes had a good feel as to why we had lost so many competitions but called the engineering team to his office to ask them whether they ever tried to win government sponsored and funded research programs the way that every other company had, [which was to acquire] the small seed money contracts which the government was interested in.  The answer was clear, that wasn’t our policy.   Wes’ response was equally clear: change your policy and vigorously go after technology contracts and share.’

The Transformation of Sikorsky Aircraft

“Wes split the company into [two units:] ground transportation (high speed trains and boats) and flight aircraft.  Jack McKenna headed the helicopter side.  It was Jack who started the process of transforming the entire process.  He energized the company’s response to the [Army’s plans to develop and field its new UTTAS helicopter.]  He put an engineering team together under Harry Jensen [engineering VP] and gave young guys like Ray Leoni and Bill Paul the opportunity to affect change within the company.  Ray Leoni was given the responsibility of putting together a winning design for the upcoming UTTAS competition and Bill Paul was charged with developing and demonstrating new technology which could compete and win against the other three helicopter companies.

“That turned out to be very successful and Sikorsky soon began to win substantial research and development contracts.  From 1967 on we and the Army researchers were working together on small contracts in materials, rotor systems, reliability, survivability etc.  By the time the UTTAS proposal was submitted we had not only developed and demonstrated our new technology but the evaluators were well versed in our approaches and technology.   Perhaps as important, they also got to know us, our honesty, capability and dedication to the UTTAS.”

Success At Last

The major impact of Wes Kuhrt’s policy, coupled with the creative skills of Sikorsky engineers, was to build the technical foundation for the BLACK HAWK program that was begun by the Army in 1972. In retrospect it seems very clear how and why Sikorsky won that critical competition by having the right culture and the best design.  However right up until that phone call came in on December 23, 1976 all employees continued to be very concerned about their jobs as well as the company’s future.  Late in that afternoon everything changed.

Prepared by:
Ray Leoni and Art Linden
May 2015


Last Update MAY 28, 2015