The Titanium Gambit

During the Cold War, Boeing execs got a strange call from the State Department: Would you guys mind trading secrets with the Russians?

Model of a supersonic transport, circa late 1960s. Boeing

Joe Sutter, winner of the 2013 National Air and Space Museum trophy for lifetime achievement, was the chief project engineer for the world’s first wide-body airliner, the Boeing 747. In the late 1960s, while Sutter and his team of engineers were designing the 747, another team at Boeing was at work on a supersonic airliner. Although the SST would be cancelled a few years later, in 1967 and ’68, Boeing was struggling with the design an airframe that would have to withstand the heat generated by high-speed flight through the atmosphere. As Sutter narrates in his book 747: Creating the World’s First Jumbo Jet and Other Adventures from a Life in Aviation, help came from an unexpected quarter…and help was expected in return.

As we designed the 747, an odd request arrived at Boeing from the U.S. Department of State. Would a delegation from Boeing be willing to meet with one from the Soviet Union for an open exchange of technical information?

Boeing President Thornton “T” Wilson didn’t know what to make of this request from high levels. The 1970s hadn’t yet hit, bringing with it the thawing of U.S.-Soviet relations known as détente. This was still the late 1960s; the Cold War was in full swing with rampant suspicions on both sides of the Iron Curtain. It was a ticklish proposition for T Wilson. He might well have politely declined except that here, unexpectedly, was a chance to get some badly needed help with a critical issue challenging our SST program.

The issue was titanium, a strong and light metal used in jet engines, missiles, aircraft, and spacecraft. Because titanium has a high resistance to heat, the Boeing 2707 SST was going to have a titanium fuselage. This ambitious airplane was to cruise at Mach 2.7 or more at extremely high altitudes far above the regular jet lanes. Despite the coldness of the very thin air at those altitudes, the 2707 would have to contend with supersonic “skin friction” that would heat its hull to many hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit. Titanium was thus an essential ingredient in America’s SST program.

The problem was that this metal is notoriously difficult to work with. While we used it in key places in our jetliners, we didn’t know nearly enough about titanium to feel we could manufacture an entire fuselage out of it at an acceptable cost.

The same was true of the British and French, who steered entirely clear of titanium for the Concorde. Instead they gave it a conventional structure, which limited Europe’s SST to a cruise speed of Mach 2.2 or so. Beyond that, skin friction would soften its aluminum hull too much.

In contrast, the Russians knew a great deal about titanium, which is found in abundance there. The Soviet aerospace industry was far ahead of the West in this regard. Accordingly, T Wilson accepted the State Department’s request for a meeting in “neutral territory.”

We soon learned that this meeting was to be held at a restaurant in Paris. I was told that the Soviets wanted to find out why we at Boeing placed the engines of our jets beneath the wings instead of on the aft fuselage like most other manufacturers. The Russians were also extremely curious about the evolving Boeing 747.

T Wilson asked me to go with him and speak about both these issues. In addition to the two of us and [Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief] Mal Stamper, the Boeing delegation would include Bob Withington, a senior engineer who was deeply involved in the SST program, and Ken Luplow, the Boeing Commercial Airplanes sales executive responsible for Soviet-bloc countries. T wanted Ken along to provide insights on a variety of cultural and technical fronts. Ken’s position in BCA sales was not an enviable one, because the countries behind the Iron Curtain back then didn’t buy Boeing. Lacking hard currency, they were pretty much obligated to fly Russian airliners, which were inferior to ours. It gave us peace of mind to know Ken would be there, although as it turned out, his expertise was not needed.

We flew to Paris and settled into our hotel. As the hour of our utterly unprecedented meeting drew near, I realized I didn’t have a clue what to expect. How productive could our session be in light of Cold War tensions and the deep distrust between our two governments?

Accompanied by State Department officials acting as our hosts, we climbed into a fleet of Parisian taxicabs and were soon shooting across broad boulevards. I caught glimpses of Montmartre and the Eiffel Tower bathed in late-evening sunlight as we plunged through narrow, curving streets. I must admit to feeling more like a character in a spy novel than a Boeing engineer. Our taxis deposited us at the entrance to a restaurant that looked well established and altogether too normal for a face-to-face with the Soviets. What was I expecting, I asked myself, Checkpoint Charlie? Entering to savory aromas, we ascended to a private dining room on the second floor and took seats around a large table.

T Wilson had decided that we would ask our questions first. Afterward, if and only if we felt the Russians had been fully forthcoming, were we to return the favor and share Boeing’s hard-won knowledge with equal candor. This plan was approved up front by the State Department, which hoped that a mutually beneficial exchange of information might help thaw relations between our two countries.

There were nontechnical people at that dinner, but we pretty well ignored them except for the translators. We quickly found kindred spirits in the Russian engineers sitting around the table. They were intelligent and gregarious and shared our great love of the subject.

Bob Withington peppered them with questions, initiating an animated and very enthusiastic exchange of knowledge about titanium and its fabrication. Finally, after at least an hour, he informed T that all his questions had been fully answered and that he considered the exchange valuable. By now we had finished the main course at our superb restaurant—although I have no memory of what we ate—and out came the vodka and other potables. These flowed pretty freely, which no doubt contributed to the collegial discussion.

By the time my turn came, it was close to 11 p.m. T instructed me not to hold anything back.  The Russians started by asking me why we hadn’t mounted our engines on the aft fuselage like Great Britain’s BAC-111 and Vickers VC-10, the French Caravelle, Douglas’s DC-9, and their own Ilyushin IL-62, the Soviet Union’s first intercontinental jetliner.

I explained the many advantages of wing-mounted engines, including such things as structural loads, airframe efficiency, drag and stall characteristics, usable cabin volume, and so on. The Russian engineers asked me to illustrate my answers to their eager and probing questions. A pen was found but there was no paper. Somebody suggested that I sketch on cloth napkins, which I did, and when those ran out, I drew charts, curves, and structural sketches on the tablecloth itself.

This went on for another hour until finally the Russians were satisfied. We stood, more than ready to return to our hotels and get some sleep.  I noticed that the Russians carefully rolled up the napkins and tablecloth and took them away with them. A lot of valuable American technological know-how went to Russia courtesy of that French linen.

When we got home and word spread of this Russia-Boeing meeting, a lot of Boeing people felt that I had violated Boeing and U.S. security by giving away this hard-won Boeing engineering information to the Soviets. They didn’t realize that T Wilson himself had ordered me point-blank to do so at the direct instigation of the U.S. government.

This misconception resurfaced a few times thereafter when Russian engineers visited Boeing for meetings in which I was not involved. As I ruefully learned each time, they tended to praise me so liberally for my “invaluable” contributions to Soviet aerospace that more than a few of my colleagues probably thought I should be led off in handcuffs.

It didn’t help that Russia’s first widebody jetliner, the IL-86, emerged with four engines under its wings like a 747. The first one entered service late in 1980 after a very protracted development. It is a poor airplane, though, and very few were built.

Joe Sutter with the first Boeing 747, late 1960s. Boeing