Striking out on his own with an idea for an air-cooled radial engine, Rentschler left the Wright Aeronautical Company for Hartford, Connecticut in 1924. Meeting with the Executives of the Pratt & Whitney Company, then a machine tool manufacturer, Rentschler said, “Aviation has passed the stage of the one-man show… An organization that was not eternally at the tasks of research and experiment, test and development, soon stalled and died in aviation. It was the hallmark of the virile aircraft organization when each of its products sought to make obsolescent the preceding design.”
- In 1909, Rentschler helped form the Wright Aeronautical Corporation and as president led the development of the “Whirlwind,” Americas first high-powered air-cooled radial aircraft engine used in record-setting flights in the 1920s and 30s.
- In 1925, Rentschler helped establish the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Company to develop the higher horsepower “Wasp” radial engine for military, commercial and private aircraft.
- In 1931, Rentschler led the formation of United Air Lines.
- Rentschler became chairman and CEO of United Aircraft and Transport Corporation in 1934 and during World War II its division produced Pratt & Whitney engines, Hamilton propellers, Sikorsky helicopters, and Chance Vought Corsair fighters.
It was 1919 and World War I had ended in victory for the Allies, when Frederick Brant Rentschler helped form the Wright Aeronautical Corporation. Its purpose was to build liquid-cooled engines for post-war aircraft. As its president, Rentschler was a very progressive leader and soon acquired the first company airplane in history, a Loening seaplane.
To test his more experimental engines, he built the Wright Mystery Ship for the 1922 Pulitzer Trophy Race. Later, his improved Wright racers captured third and fourth places in the 1923 Pulitzer, while his seaplane entered the Schneider Cup Race that same year.
Rentschler accepted the challenge of perfecting an air-cooled radial engine that promised lighter weight and greater reliability than liquid-cooled engines. The result was the Wright Whirlwind, the world’s first large air-cooled aircraft engine.
Charles Lindbergh would later gain international fame by flying his Whirlwind-powered Spirit of St. Louis on an epic solo flight across the Atlantic, confirming the air-cooled engine as one of the most important developments in aviation history.
Meanwhile, a crisis in Rentschler’s career arrived when Wright’s board refused to appropriate funds to develop even more powerful engines. After resigning from Wright Aeronautical, Rentschler gathered the most talented engine experts around him, and soon revealed his plans for a larger air-cooled radial engine to executives of the Pratt & Whitney Tool Company. They were so impressed with him that they agreed to build the prototype in their facilities and pledged $1 million to modify it for mass production.
Assured of backing, Rentschler formed the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Company in July 1925, in Hartford, Connecticut. As its president, he developed the Pratt & Whitney facilities to enable him to build the best aircraft engines in the world. By late December, when the first one was constructed, Rentschler’s wife, Faye, gave it the historic name Wasp.
By 1926, the Navy had ordered 200 Wasps for its high performance Boeing fighters and Vought Corsair observation planes. These planes were to serve aboard its new aircraft carriers, the Saratoga and the Lexington. But even before the Wasp was in full production, Rentschler tasked his engineers with construction of an even more powerful engine, the 525 horsepower Hornet.
Soon, Wasps began playing a major role in the development of passenger air service, when Boeing Air Transport used them on its new Mailwing biplane. These planes, and the Wasp engines that propelled them, carried up to four times the normal mail load from San Francisco over the Rockies to Chicago at half the normal cost.
Western Air Lines opened the first regularly-scheduled airline service in the country, by flying Wasp powered Fokker trimotors between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Wasps also powered the new Ford trimotors used on Transcontinental Air Transport’s unique system, which enabled passengers to use planes and Pullman cars to cross the United States in only 48 hours, half the usual train time.
By 1928, Rentschler was certain that passenger air travel had a great future, and he was instrumental in forming United Aircraft and Transport Corporation. This conglomerate holding company, of which he is president, was in business to build and operate airliners over its own routes. Its first big step came when Boeing air transport placed its huge “Flying Pullman” airliner into service between San Francisco and Chicago. But its passengers could not fly on to New York because no connecting passenger service existed, only National Air Transport flying the mail. Determined to establish coast-to-coast passenger service, Rentschler first acquired Stout Air Service, which flew passengers between Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland. Then he proposed a merger with National Air Transport. After a bitter legal battle, the merger finally occurred, and in June 1930, he formed United Air Lines. By flying by day and night, United became the first transcontinental airline.
By the mid-1930s, Wasp and Hornet engines propelled thousands of military aircraft. They also helped Juan Trippe’s Pan American Airways open routes to South America, and established the United States as the dominant world air power. To keep up with the tremendous demand, Pratt & Whitney built a new $2 million facility in East Hartford. These were also the “golden days of air racing”, when dashing Jimmy Doolittle in his stubby Wasp-powered Gee Bee thrilled fans at the National Air Races with their breakneck speeds.
By 1933, United Air Lines had become America’s largest carrier and, to assure its continuing leadership, Rentschler ordered 60 revolutionary new Wasp-propelled Boeing 247 airliners, which cut coast-to-coast flying time to only 20 hours! In 1934, Rentschler became Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the newly structured United Aircraft Corporation, as Boeing Aircraft and United Air Lines became independent companies.
At this point he decided to pour millions into his Sikorsky Aircraft Division’s development of a practical helicopter. Success came in 1939, when the famed Igor Sikorsky piloted his single-rotor helicopter aloft. His would be the only helicopter to see service during World War II, which had erupted in Europe. Fortunately, Rentschler’s Hamilton-Standard division also perfected the constant-speed propeller and in the dark days of the Battle of Britain they enable the Royal Air Force (RAF) to outfly and outfight the Nazis and turn the tide of war.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor forced America’s entry into the war, the truth of Rentschler’s belief that: “the engine is the key to air superiority” became apparent to all. Huge wartime demands soon overtaxed Pratt & Whitney’s capacity. Despite major increases in its facilities, automobile companies such as Ford, Buick, and Chevrolet also geared up to mass-produce its engines.
Wasps, Twin Wasps, and Double Wasps soon powered vital warplanes such as the Navy’s Hellcat carrier-based fighters, the Army Air Force’s Thunderbolt fighters, its Liberator bombers, and its Skymaster transports. All in all, Pratt & Whitney and its licensees produced more than a third of a million engines and Hamilton-Standard and its licensees produced 75 percent of the propellers that the Allies used to achieve unconditional surrender of the Axis powers.
After the war, Rentschler again turned his corporation’s efforts toward commercial aviation. The new breed of airliners utilized the Double Wasp engine, while the new “Wasp Major” powered the giant B-36, as well as the B-50 “superfortress”, the first plane to fly non-stop around the world. But by this point, Rentschler realized that a new sound was in the air: the whistle of the jet engine. He set out to make Pratt & Whitney the leader in the jet field.
Rentschler manufactured the Turbo Wasp jet engines under a Rolls-Royce license. They powered the Navy’s Panther and also the Air Force’s Starfire fighters, the best in their class. To provide greater economy of operation, the T-34 turbo-prop engine was introduced and used on planes such as the Air Force’s Cargomaster. However, Rentschler and Pratt & Whitney outpaced the industry with their revolutionary J-57 jet engine, which produced twice the thrust of any other jet engine. It soon powered the Air Force’s Stratofortress, the backbone of the Strategic Air Command during the Cold War.
Soon the J-57 also was powering a new generation of fighters, such as the Navy’s delta-winged Skyray, which appreciative pilots affectionately called the “Ford”. Meanwhile, the new generation of jetliners, such as the Boeing 707, turned to the commercial version of the J-57 to open a new era in passenger service. In order to meet the demand for even more powerful jet engines, Pratt & Whitney introduced the J-75, used on sleek jetliners such as the Douglas DC-8. Rentschler was the recipient of numerous awards during his life, including the French Legion of Honor, the Air Force’s Civilian Service Award and the Daniel Guggenheim Medal. Frederick Brant Rentschler, by his unique vision of the role of the engine in the on-going development of military and commercial aviation, and his boundless energy in transforming that vision into reality, revolutionized the aircraft propulsion and aviation in general. Rentschler died on April 25th, 1956.
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