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?
- By Joe Sutter
- AirSpaceMag.com, April 01, 2013
(Page 2 of 3)
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.