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Suntan Fades

In addition to its technological problems, the Suntan project was the subject of conflicting technical views over its feasibility and the best way to accomplish reconnaissance. In fact, Suntan did not get very far as a wholly supported project. Within six months, a difference of technical opinion over achievable range surfaced and this contributed to the gradual demise of the project. True to its name, Suntan had no clearcut ending: it just faded away. By the middle of- 1957, opposition had effectively doomed the project although it lingered through 1958 and was not cancelled until the management team, weary of waiting, so requested in February 1959. Surprisingly, one of the main opponents was the man who conceived and sold the project to the Air Force, Kelly Johnson. The main defendant was the Suntan management team, particularly Appold and Seaberg, who for some months were able to convince high officials to keep the project going in the face of mounting opposition and budgetary restraints.

Johnson's change of mind apparently came during the first six months of study and experimentation on the feasibility of the hydrogen-fueled airplane. The Air Force had insisted on a minimum radius to target of 2800 kilometers and was convinced that this distance and more was feasible. Johnson, on the other hand, believed that a radius of 2000 kilometers was about the best that could be achieved. The two sides stuck to their views throughout the life of the project.

Following the initial phase of study and experimentation, the project proceeded during Fiscal Year 1957 as originally planned, with an allocation of about $19 million. Lockheed ordered 4 kilometers of aluminum extrusions to build the CL-400; Pratt & Whitney went full speed in developing the 304 engine; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology contracted to provide a guidance system; and Air Products contracted to build a large hydrogen liquefaction plant adjacent to the Pratt & Whitney test center in Florida.

The bottom line on how well a project is faring in government circles is the fraction of the budgeted funds that is actually allocated to it. The Air Force obtained approval for $95 million for Suntan development for the fiscal year beginning in July 1957. The first significant indication that the project was in trouble came when the Suntan management team requested release of these funds to maintain the development schedule. The request was placed on the 22 August agenda of the Air Council, the Air Force's highest management group.

In preparation for this meeting, the Suntan team met with crusty, blunt Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, former boss of the Strategic Air Command who had moved up to vice chief of staff in July. It was the first time that LeMay had received a full briefing on Suntan and his initial reaction brought dismay to the team. "What," he exploded, "put my pilots up there with a ... bomb?" LeMay not only took a dim view of using liquid hydrogen but also was apparently under pressure to find funds for other important projects. On 19 September, the team received the bad news: of the $95 million approved in the budget for Suntan, only $32.3 million would be made available for it; the remainder would be transferred to other projects. In spite ofadditional efforts by Gen. Samuel E. Anderson, the new head ofthe Air Research and Development Command, to restore the funding, the decision remained firm.

Johnson's views apparently contributed to the Air Force decision to cut Suntan. Sometime during the mid- 1957 period, he was visited by James H. Douglas, Jr., who had succeeded Donald A. Quarles as Secretary of the Air Force in March 1957. Douglas was accompanied by Lt. Gen. Clarence A. Irvine, -deputy chief of staff for materiel and a member of the Air Council. The visitors, concerned about the short radius of the CL-400 and mindful of Johnson's ability to stretch the range of other aircraft, asked him how much margin for growth was in the CL-400. The answer: practically none.

Ordinarily, range can be extended by adding more fuel or improving the fuel consumption of the propulsion system for a given thrust. Johnson could see a range growth of only a paltry 3 percent or so from adding more fuel. ". . . we have crammed the maximum amount of hydrogen in the fuselage that it can hold. You do not carry hydrogen in the flat surfaces of the wing," he explained. Johnson turned to Perry Pratt for estimated improvements in the 304 engine and his answer was equally pessimistic: no more than 5 or 6 percent improvement in specific fuel consumption could be expected over a five-year period. The very low growth estimates were compounded by operational logistics problems of liquid hydrogen. As Ben Rich asked: "How do you justify hauling enough LH2 around the world to exploit a shortrange airplane?"

Having exhausted their appeals by October 1957, the Suntan team drastically curtailed the project to fit the funds available. Pratt & Whitney was given $18.7 million to continue development of the 304 engine at an undiminished pace. A total of $11.6 million was allocated for hydrogen liquefaction plant construction and operation and $3 million was set aside for later use. Development of the CL-400 was cancelled, but Lockheed was asked to continue the fuel system tests; $3 million was recovered from the changes. The MIT guidance contract also was cancelled.

The Suntan team, particularly Seaberg, was not convinced that Johnson's pessimism over range was justified. Contracts for additional design studies were let not only with Lockheed but also with North American Aviation, Boeing, and ConvairFort Worth. The additional study at Lockheed did nothing to change Johnson's view. In all, 14 designs were considered, ranging from bombers to Mach 4 reconnaissance aircraft with comparisons between using petroleum fuels and liquid hydrogen. For the same range, Lockheed found that aircraft using liquid hydrogen were larger but weighed less at takeoff than those using petroleum fuels. At a given speed, hydrogen-fueled aircraft exceeded the altitude limits of petroleum-fueled aircraft by 3000 to 6000 meters. By March 1958, a Boeing design appeared to be the most promising of the new studies. Powered by four engines, it would fly at Mach 2.5 at 30,500 meters altitude, and have a radius of 4,100 kilometers - almost twice that of the CL-400. The Boeing airplane was also considerably larger than the CL-400, with a length of 61 meters, a delta wing span of 61 meters, and a takeoff weight of 75,750 kilograms.

The final results of the design studies were presented to the Air Council on 12 June 1958. LeMay, who chaired the meeting, raised the same objections as previously but allowed a full discussion of the subject. The Suntan team felt that the general reaction was favorable, but this was dispelled by two significant points in the summary of the meeting. Even if a successful new reconnaissance aircraft were developed, the President might not allow its use because of international political risks. If this happened, LeMay argued, the Air Force would only be building museum pieces. The second point was even more devastating. The Air Force had given a competing project higher priority; since it was underfunded there was nojustification for allocating funds to Suntan.

The June meeting spelled the effective end of Suntan, but the Air Council thought that the engine work should continue for its value in advancing the technology. Since the Suntan mission was broader than the Air Force, however, the June decision was not the final word. A joint committee of the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency was formed to make recommendations regarding Suntan. The committee, headed by Edwin Land of the Polaroid Corporation, held meetings during the summer and fall of 1958 and the Suntan management team was held together pending the results. Although not privy to the committee's findings, the team sensed the trend and terminated the Pratt & Whitney contract in November. By February 1959, with still no word from the committee or formal directive from Air Force headquarters, the team requested that the project be ended. Of the $19 million allocated for FY 1959, about half had been transferred to the Advanced Research Projects Agency for rocket projects.

In retrospect, several principals of the Suntan project saw different reasons for its ending. To Kelly Johnson, designer of the aircraft, the short range and hydrogen logistics were the predominating reasons; he considered the meeting with Douglas as the effective end of the project. For Norman Appold, the project manager, the end came for other reasons. Suntan was one of a variety of options for gathering intelligence. The implications of flying aircraft over Russian territory, which had been on the minds of the Air Council and others since the beginning of the U-2 and its potential flameout problem, became very real with Gary Powers's experience in 1960.

For Ralph Nunziato, with access to top-level Pentagon meetings and decisions, the reasons for cancelling Suntan were purely economic. In a presentation to the Air Council, he indicated that the next phase of development would need an estimated $150 million. It was a period of stringent budgetary limitations and Suntan lost out to other projects.

Even the amount spent on Suntan remains in doubt. The consensus of several involved was that about $100 million was spent and some documentation appears to support this. But Appold, the project manager, firmly believed the total to be closer to $250 million, and Richard Horner, who was assistant secretary of the Air Force for R&D, concured. Since Suntan covered many activities and since great pains were taken to camouflage the project by directing funds through various channels, the actual total cost remained unknown.

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Page last modified: 27-06-2016 19:26:14 ZULU