Pratt & Whitney is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the PT6 turboprop here at Oshkosh. The PT6 is certainly the most famous and successful turboprop engine and it would be fair to say it is one of the most revered engines of any type.
The PT6 is a wonderful engine celebrated for reliability. It also had the good fortune of being selected to power the Beech King Air which is the world’s most successful turboprop. It’s impossible to do the chicken and egg thing with great airplanes and engines, but it is a fact that good engines build their reputation powering good airplanes. And the other way around.
Reliability of the PT6 is well documented. More than 51,000 engines in the PT6 family have been delivered and they have logged more than 380 million flight hours. That is 10 times more experience than the closest competitive turboprop engine.
But those are facts. For pilots the PT6 is also a legend that is tied up in emotion. And the core of the legend is a bald eagle.
The PT6 had the great advantage of entering the new world of light turboprop airplanes with a famous name behind it. And a famous logo. Thousands of pilots flying in the military or the airlines had bet their lives on round engines that also had a round logo. In the center of the logo was a bald eagle in flight. At the top is the name Pratt & Whitney. Under the eagle it says Dependable Engines. That certainly gets to the point.
The bald eagle logo made its debut in 1925. The logo was made from stamped bronze and painted with colored enamel. The plate was attached to the first Wasp engine, and every other Pratt engine through the decades, including the crucial World War II years.
Veteran pilots were more than happy to fly behind any engine that had the bald eagle logo attached. When the PT6 came along, it had the eagle, and the new engine was welcomed as part of a revered family. If any pilot wondered if this new fangled turbine would work, the round bald eagle plate on the engine removed any doubt.
The bald eagle logo had a couple of minor changes over the years, and during World War II companies that built Pratt engines under license used their own versions of the eagle, but the look remained unmistakable.
Then, in 1981 somebody at Pratt went off the rails. The company introduced a new, stylized logo that looked sort of like the head of a bald eagle, but certainly not a bird in flight. And certainly nothing like the glorious and powerful image of the bald eagle so many pilots had come to trust explicitly.
The uproar was instant and sustained. I never talked to a pilot who didn’t hate the new logo. It was a sin against all that was sacred in engine lore. But Pratt’s parent company United Technologies held firm—until at the Paris Air Show in 1987 the original bald eagle in flight logo was returned. The fight to restore the eagle had been won.
At the time a friend who worked for United Technologies told me that the restored bald eagle logo was actually much better than the previous. When the company could no longer withstand the pressure to return the eagle people inside took a close look at the logo. The eagle was actually a little ratty, and didn’t have good definition of its feathers. So artists gave the eagle more anatomically correct features, and added more precise colors, and the new-old logo came out better than ever.
Few pilots ever noticed that eagle in flight had been “improved”. The logo was back in its rightful place and any doubt that this was a “dependable engine” was banished. It is 50 years and counting for the PT6, but a lot more years for the eagle. And I expect both the PT6 and bald eagle to be flying long after I’m gone.