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Boeing 2707 SST History

On 30 June 1960 the House Committee on Science and Astronautics recommended that Congress support a Federal program for the development of a commercial supersonic transport (SST). The committee report called for completion of the B-70 bomber program, which it considered justified on defense grounds and which was expected to blaze a technological trail for the SST. The report also recommended that NASA assume leadership in devising a program for SST development.

On 09 January 1961 the Federal Aviation Agency released a report on the commercial supersonic transport (SST), prepared by FAA with the assistance of DOD and NASA. The report concluded that a Mach 3 (2,000 m.p.h.) transport could and should be built by US industry, with governmental financial support limited to demonstrated needs. Although he had been unable to persuade the outgoing Eisenhower Administration to request funds for SST development, FAA Administrator Quesada recommended prompt and careful consideration of the immediate establishment of such a program.

On 24 July 1961 a joint FAA-DOD-NASA Commercial Supersonic Transport Aircraft Report was issued. Based on a review of information gathered from industry and Federal government sources, the report concluded that development of a commercial transport aircraft to fly three times the speed of sound (Mach 3) was feasible and could be done by 1970-71. During August, Congress made its first appropriation for FAA research on the Supersonic Transport.

On 25 September 1961 the FAA, NASA, and the Defense Department agreed on a plan for the research and study phase of the commercial supersonic transport program. Assigning FAA responsibility for overall program leadership and management direction, the plan provided for a Supersonic Transport Steering Group -- headed by the FAA Administrator and including the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Materiel and NASA's Director of Advanced Research Programs -- to formulate broad policy and give overall guidance for the Federal role in the program. The Steering Group would be supported on the working level by the SST task group, which had been in operation for some time. Comprised of designated FAA-DOD-NASA representatives, the task group was to continue coordinating the SST activities of the three agencies.

Within the Kennedy Administration the SST found a persuasive champion in Najeeb Halaby, the head of the Federal Aviation Agency. Halaby started in early 1961 by winning a congressional appropriation of $11 million with which he launched feasibility studies. Late in 1962, with the study results in hand and the Concorde under way, he urged JFK to initiate a major SST program in response.

On 11 December 1961 a Supersonic Transport Advisory Group established in November held its first formal meeting with the joint Supersonic Transport Steering Group. The new group was headed by General Orval R. Cook (USAF Ret.) and included aviation industry leaders. Its major tasks were: to assess basic technical background material of the supersonic transport (SST); to define Federal-industry roles in program management; to consider the impact on U.S. and world markets if a European Mach 2 SST flew before the American SST; to develop a plan for financing development; to prepare a blueprint for development, production, and entry into airline service; and to consider methods for airline financing of SST purchases.

On 16 January 1963 the Federal Aviation Agency's Supersonic Transport Advisory Group recommended U.S. development of a commercial supersonic transport (SST) as a top-priority Federal-industry program in a report made public this date. In acknowledging the report, Administrator Halaby said that it made a "powerful" case for proceeding with SST development, but he asked for additional conclusions and recommendations in the following areas: cost of development and testing up to the preproduction stage for each airplane; unit cost which should be charged to the air carriers by manufacturers after the production stage was reached, "assuming production of some 200 aircraft"; direct operating costs; and management organization for development of an SST. The group submitted this supplementary report in May 1963 before dissolving in July. At the end of May 1963, a Cabinet-level committee headed by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson submitted recommendations to President Kennedy that were favorable to the program.

While this review proceeded, Juan Trippe of Pan Am proceeded to stir the pot. During the spring of 1963, Trippe let it be known that he intended to place a "protective order" for six Concordes. He, however, would much prefer to purchase American SSTs, should they become available. On 05 June 1963, he announced that he was taking options on the European airliner, putting down money to reserve positions on the production schedule, though he was not actually committing to make the purchases. By then, Kennedy had the favorable results of the interagency review.

On 05 June 1963 in a speech before the graduating class of the United States Air Force Academy, President Kennedy said "It is my judgement that this Government should immediately commence a new program in partnership with private industry to develop at the earliest practical date the prototype of a commercially successful supersonic transport, superior to that being built in any other country in the world." What lay ahead was years of development, competition, controversy, and ultimately rejection of the supersonic transport by the United States.

In a 14 June 1963 letter to Congress, Kennedy wrote that the national interest required a U.S. SST superior to any comparable transport, and he formally recommended a program to develop such an aircraft. He emphasized that the government would put up no more than $750 million, while the manufacturers would carry at least 25 percent of the development costs. To provide this Federal share, the President on 24 June requested Congress to appropriate $60 million. The money was subsequently included in FAA's appropriation for fiscal 1964. Congress appropriated $100M in the fiscal 1964 budget toward the development of the American SST and in October of '63, TWA and PanAm stepped forward with $2.1M towards the purchase of 21 SSTs.

On 15 August 1963 the FAA issued a request for proposals (RFP) that established performance objectives for the United States supersonic transport (SST), providing the basis for design competition among airframe and engine manufacturers. The program timetable called for initial submission of manufacturers' designs based on this RFP by Jan 15, 1964. By Sep 10, 1963, three major airframe manufacturers and three major engine builders had notified FAA of their intention to submit proposals.

As they prepared their proposals, however, executives of major planebuilders also came forward with complaints. They objected strongly to the cost-sharing arrangements, under which they were to put up 25 percent of the program expense. This was their way of declaring that the SST looked like a fine way to lose money. Nevertheless, they would do their duty as patriots if Uncle Sam would carry more of the financial load. Boeing's William Allen was particularly blunt: "Government must be prepared to render greater financial assistance than presently proposed."

Kennedy responded by commissioning an outside review of the issue, putting it in the hands of Eugene Black, former president of the World Bank, and Stanley Osborne, chairman of Olin Mathieson. He asked them not only to review the cost-sharing issue but also to cast a broad net by talking as well to government officials. Their report reached the White House a week before Christmas, with Lyndon B. Johnson now holding the presidency following the death of Kennedy.

The report's conclusions were devastating to Halaby. It rejected his view that the SST should go forward as a race with Concorde. Instead, the effort was to focus initially on building a test aircraft to serve for research. The report went so far as to recommend that the program should be taken out of Halaby's hands altogether, for the FAA had no staff ready to manage such a task. On the cost-sharing issue, it recommended that the government should pick up 90 as opposed to 75 percent.

These conclusions generally suited the preferences of another player: Robert McNamara. He had faced down the Air Force in dealing with a technically similar program, the North American B-70, that sought to build supersonic bombers with the size and speed of an SST. Though Air Force generals had called for its rapid development and production, McNamara endorsed an Eisenhower Administration decision to build only three prototype craft, XB-70s, for use in flight test. McNamara also had developed an interest in the SST itself, and had served as a member of Vice-President Johnson's interagency review panel.

On 15 January 1964 six companies submitted supersonic transport (SST) design proposals to FAA in response to the agency?s Aug 1963 request for such proposals. The companies included three airframe manufacturers (Boeing, Lockheed, and North American Aviation) and three engine manufacturers (General Electric, Pratt & Whitney, and Curtiss-Wright).

On 01 April 1964 FAA's Deputy Administrator for SST Development Gordon Bain reported on the results of a evaluation made in Phase I of the SST design competition. A 210-person Federal team gave the highest competitive scores to the Boeing variable-sweep wing airframe design and the General Electric after-burning turbojet engine design. In transmitting these results to Administrator Halaby, Bain recommended that the two companies be selected to go into a one-year noncompetitive detailed-design phase.

The Black-Osborne report set in motion a Washington debate that eased Halaby toward the margins of SST management and made McNamara a central figure. In April 1964, Lyndon B Johnson picked him to head the President's Advisory Committee on Supersonic Transport. Though the program remained within the FAA, high-level decisions went into the hands of this advisory panel. As defense secretary, McNamara had insisted that new military programs were to receive extensive study and analysis before their managers could cut metal for prototypes. He now approached the SST from the same perspective, arguing that the FAA should commit to building a prototype only after suitably refined designs were in hand and only after serious economic analyses showed a reasonable prospect for success. On 20 May 1964 President Johnson gave his approval for the U.S. supersonic transport (SST) development program to proceed into Phase IIA -- a six-month design competition between two airframe manufacturers (Boeing and Lockheed) and two engine manufacturers (General Electric and Pratt & Whitney). The President based his decision on the recommendations of the President's Advisory Committee on Supersonic Transport made on May 15, 1964. On June 1, the four competitors signed the six-month Phase IIA contracts. The contracts authorized each air frame manufacturer to spend at the rate of $1 million per month during the contract period and each engine manufacturer at a rate of $835,000 per month. All four manufacturers agreed to bear 25 percent of the contract costs. The design competition was subsequently extended for an additional six month period designated Phase IIB.

On 01 July 1965 President Johnson announced that the supersonic transport development program would move into Phase IIC, an 18-month detailed design phase costing approximately $220 million. The President?s decision, which was made known during General William F. McKee's swearing-in as FAA Administrator, was based on the recommendations of the President's Advisory Committee on Supersonic Transport.

The decision postponed prototype development and fabrication for at least 18 months, prolonging the program's competitive phase by retaining the two airframe competitors (Boeing and Lockheed) and the two engine competitors (General Electric and Pratt & Whitney) selected in 1964. Unlike the previous design phases, however, Phase IIC was not purely a "paper" competition. The airframe manufacturers would construct full-scale mock-ups, and the engine manufacturers would build and test full-scale demonstrator engines.

The President enumerated four primary objectives of the new competitive design phase: (1) to provide a sound foundation for realistic estimates of operating performance and production costs; (2) to take advantage of the flight experience of the SR-71, the XB-70, and the variable swept-wing F-111; (3) to reduce developmental risks and developmental costs, while retaining the capacity to accelerate the program in its later phases; (4) and to provide a better basis for judgment as to the manner in which the program should proceed after the 18-month period. The President asked Congress for $140 million to initiate the 18-month program.

On 31 December 1966 the FAA declared the Boeing Company and the General Electric Company winners of the supersonic transport development program competitive design and study phase (Phase IIC). The agency selected Boeing's variable-sweep-wing airframe design over the Lockheed Corporation's double-delta-wing design and General Electric's after-burning turbojet engine over the Pratt & Whitney ductburning turbofan engine. The selections were based on an intensive two-month evaluation conducted by a 240-person team of aeronautical experts from the Defense Department, NASA, CAB, and FAA. In addition, 10 US and foreign airlines independently evaluated the proposals and submitted individual recommendations.

On 06 February 1967 the FAA asked US air carriers to help finance the supersonic transport prototype program by contributing $1 million in risk capital for each SST delivery position held. The agency took the step at the direction of President Johnson, who considered it a way in which the airlines could demonstrate to the Congress and the public their faith in the SST program. Under the proposal, contributions would in no way affect the established places of contributing and noncontributing carriers on the reservation schedule. The money would go directly to the Boeing Company to be used in the development program in lieu of Federal funds. The airlines would recover their investment--up to a maximum of $1.5 million for each $1 million contributed--through aircraft royalty payments. Ten U.S. air carriers holding a total of 52 delivery positions agreed to put up risk capital. Details of the participation agreement could not be worked out before April, however, and this became a factor in delaying the President's announcement of his decision to take the SST program into prototype development.

On 29 April 1967 President Johnson announced that the U.S. supersonic transport development program would proceed into the prototype development phase (Phase III). Johnson based his decision on the recommendations of the President's Advisory Committee on Supersonic Transport. On May 1, 1967, the date of the President's formal approval, FAA, Boeing, and General Electric signed the Phase III contracts retroactive to Jan 1, 1967, which called for the construction of two identical variable, sweep-wing SST prototypes.

On 05 June 1967 the Boeing Company assumed from FAA responsibility for allocating supersonic transport (SST) delivery positions to purchasers. At the same time, FAA raised the cost of reserving future positions from $200,000 to $750,000. The $750,000 deposit would be made directly to Boeing, would be in the form of risk capital, and would bear no interest. It would be used by Boeing in lieu of Federal funds to help finance the prototype program. Boeing agreed to honor the 113 delivery positions already allocated by FAA among 26 airlines.

On 21 October 1968 the Boeing Company formally announced it had abandoned its variable-sweep-wing design for the U.S. supersonic transport (SST) in favor of a conventional fixed-wing. The company's engineers had never been able to overcome the weight penalties imposed by the variable-sweep wing design.

On 15 January 1969 the Boeing Company submitted to FAA for evaluation a new supersonic transport (SST) configuration, a delta-wing design with a horizontal tail. A 100-person review team drawn from FAA, NASA, and the Defense Department found that Boeing had adequately integrated the new design. In February, President Nixon appointed an interdepartmental committee headed by Under Secretary of Transportation James M. Beggs to review the SST program. The committee's report, submitted in early April, contained mixed views on the program's future. Secretary of Transportation Volpe, however, continued to advise in favor of the program.

On 23 September 1969, Nixon announced that the SST development program would be continued because the project was essential to maintaining U.S. leadership in world air transport. The President requested Congress to appropriate $96 million during fiscal year 1970 ($662 million over a five-year period, fiscal 1970 through fiscal 1974) to pursue the program.

On 06 April 1970 management responsibility for the supersonic transport (SST) development program was transferred from the FAA to the Office of the Secretary, Department of Transportation. The Director of Supersonic Transport Development would henceforth take guidance and direction from the Under Secretary of Transportation, while FAA would continue to provide a variety of support functions for the program. In announcing the transfer a few days earlier, Secretary Volpe had explained that it would increase his oversight of the program. In addition, the change would ensure that FAA, the agency responsible for certificating the aircraft, would not be responsible for its development. Volpe had also announced the appointment of William M. Magruder as Director of the program, succeeding Brig. Gen. Jewell C. Maxwell, who had resigned during the previous summer.

A nucleus of anti-SST sentiment already lay at hand within the Senate, where William Proxmire regarded its economics as most curious. The plan called for the FAA to put up $1.3 billion to carry the program through the construction and test of two prototypes. The SST then would go into production, and Boeing would pay the government a royalty on each plane sold. The federal outlay thus was "not a subsidy, it's a loan," said William Magruder, a Lockheed man who had taken over as SST program manager. "By the time the 300th airplane is sold, all of the Government's investment will be returned to the U.S. Treasury, and when we sell five hundred airplanes, there will be a billion dollars in profit to the Government."

Proxmire responded by arguing that Uncle Sam was not a venture capitalist. If this "loan" was so profitable, then Boeing should tap into its banks instead, as it had done in financing the 747. Referring to Nixon's SST budget request for fiscal 1971, Proxmire added, "We are being asked to spend $290 million this year for transportation for one half of one percent of the people-the jet setters-to fly overseas, and we are spending $204 million this year for urban mass transportation for millions of people to get to work. Does that make any sense?"

His colleague Gaylord Nelson, another Senate opponent, described the SST as a high-cost, high-fare plane being built to serve a small constituency that may be willing to pay a substantial extra fee to save three hours' travel time to Europe. These people are flying on expense accounts or fat pocketbooks. If there is sufficient demand to support such a plane, it should stand on its own and be built without subsidy.

The immediate focus of attention was a congressional hearing held in May 1970, with Proxmire as chairman. He chose the witnesses with care. Among them was Richard Garwin, a senior physicist at IBM who had participated in a White House review of the program. Calling for an immediate end to its federal support, Garwin asserted that "the SST will produce as much noise as the simultaneous takeoff of fifty jumbo jets."

Throughout Boeing, 4,800 people were working on the program, and by June 1970, orders for 122 SSTs from 26 airlines had been secured. Along with a team of suppliers located in most of the 50 states, seven major aviation subcontractors were involved.

The turn of the tide quickly became evident. During the previous autumn, SST funding had passed by large margins in both the House and Senate. On 27 May 1970, however, voting on the 1971 budget, the House passed the bill by only 13 votes, 176 to 163. Opponents took new heart, for they understood that with the margin of victory having narrowed so dramatically, the SST might quickly fall during the next round of congressional action.

During the summer of 1970, critics sprouted anew. In July 1970, the Airport Operators Council, representing all major airports, stated that the SST should receive funding only if it could meet stringent noise standards.

In September 1970 the mayor of New York, John Lindsay, who was widely viewed as the Republicans' answer to the Kennedys, came out against the SST. Also in September 1970, Kenneth Greif's coalition orchestrated a devastating attack on the SST's economic prospects. Over a dozen prominent economists signed individual statements stating their criticisms. The group included Paul Samuelson, Milton Friedman, Kenneth Arrow, John Kenneth Galbraith, Wassily Leontief, Walter Heller, and Arthur Okun, who had chaired the White House's Council of Economic Advisors. The group thus spanned the political spectrum from Friedman on the right to Galbraith on the left. Only one leading economist, Henry Wallich, came out in favor of the SST.

Senate leaders put off their vote until after the November election, a move that SST supporters hoped would allow some senators to vote with less fear of public pressure. Instead, the delay gave opponents more time to organize. Leading supporters included the senators from Washington state, Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson. On November 30, sensing defeat, they introduced a last-minute bill to ban overland flights that would produce sonic booms. It was too late; such bills had been in the congressional hopper since 1963, and the fact that this one passed unanimously was not important. After all, it would have to pass the House as well, where it quickly died. Early in December, the Senate voted to kill funding for the SST, 52 to 41.

This was not the end of the matter. The House, after all, had passed the bill in May, albeit narrowly. Now a conference committee recommended a compromise: to continue the SST program, but with reduced funding. The issue was not settled; it now would take the form of whether Congress would accept or reject this new arrangement. The vote would not take place for three months.

Again, though, time worked for the opponents. In January 1971, the citizens' group Common Cause, which was growing in influence, announced its opposition. So did Charles Lindbergh, the man who had flown to Paris in 1927. Still active after all those years, he had long held a seat on Pan Am's board of directors, and had become an ardent environmentalist.

Not all the arguments were on Proxmire's side. During 1970, the pro-SST forces had consisted largely of the usual corporate interests. By early 1971, however, these forces were stiffening their strength. A key argument involved jobs: With the Concorde as an SST in being, an American riposte was essential. That argument had failed to win more than divided support among union leaders, but now George Meany, head of organized labor's powerful AFL-CIO federation, came out in favor of the SST. Nixon Administration officials also weighed in with endorsements. Even William Ruckelshaus, director of the new Environmental Protection Agency, argued in favor of building at least the two prototypes.

Yet, by 1971, the issue was well past being one of whether design refinements might address specific objections or whether new research might lay scientists' concerns to rest. The public was simply against the SST, by over 85 percent in opinion polls. In 1971, barely half of all Americans had ever flown in any kind of airplane; supersonic flight to Europe was as far beyond most expectations as a visit to Shangri-La. The Los Angeles Times cartoonist, Paul Conrad, caught this spirit neatly by showing an SST's four engines as garbage cans spewing refuse that included a dead cat.

Even so, the final vote was close. As recently as December 1970, the House had maintained its narrow margin of support. Now, however, Congressman Sidney Yates, a key SST opponent, took the floor and said, "I demand tellers with clerks." This set in motion a new procedure, in use only since the beginning of the year, whereby the votes would be recorded. Unable to vote in secrecy, as it had done before, the House turned thumbs down on the SST, 215 to 204. The Senate repeated its earlier no vote, and it was all over.

These votes eliminated further federal funding for the SST. They did not ban the construction of SSTs using private-sector funding; Boeing was perfectly free to proceed with the program, if it could win the necessary support through banks or sale of securities. The company, however, was already mortgaged to the hilt; its financial leeway was close to zero. When the SST died on Capitol Hill, it died for good.

This congressional action had important consequences. It marked an end to the policy of having the FAA take on a new role by underwriting the development of new jetliners. The funding of such projects now returned to the private sector. The FAA returned to its permanent responsibilities, which included air traffic control and certification of airliners and their equipment.

The demise of the SST also brought an end to a half-century of continuing advance in the performance of commercial airliners. The industry would continue to come forth with new designs, but these would be conventional in form. The nation's airlines would find their future below the speed of sound and at altitudes well under the ozone layer.

With its votes against the SST, the House and Senate showed that they would cancel an important aerospace program even in the face of an industry-wide recession, and with the national economy as a whole in a slump. This raised the question of whether Congress as a whole would continue to oppose the interests of this industry.

On 12 October 1971 the FAA abolished the Office of Supersonic Transport Development and established the Supersonic Transport Office under the Associate Administrator for Engineering and Development to continue SST engineering and research activities. The agency also established a SST Contracts Branch in the Logistics Service to perform the contracting and procurement functions for the negotiation, administration, and termination of SST contracts.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 02:27:23 ZULU