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?

Model of a supersonic transport, circa late 1960s. (Boeing)

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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.

I explained the many advantages of wing-mounted engines, including such things as structural loads, airframe efficiency, drag and stall characteristics, usable cabin volume, and so on. The Russian engineers asked me to illustrate my answers to their eager and probing questions. A pen was found but there was no paper. Somebody suggested that I sketch on cloth napkins, which I did, and when those ran out, I drew charts, curves, and structural sketches on the tablecloth itself.

This went on for another hour until finally the Russians were satisfied. We stood, more than ready to return to our hotels and get some sleep.  I noticed that the Russians carefully rolled up the napkins and tablecloth and took them away with them. A lot of valuable American technological know-how went to Russia courtesy of that French linen.

When we got home and word spread of this Russia-Boeing meeting, a lot of Boeing people felt that I had violated Boeing and U.S. security by giving away this hard-won Boeing engineering information to the Soviets. They didn’t realize that T Wilson himself had ordered me point-blank to do so at the direct instigation of the U.S. government.

This misconception resurfaced a few times thereafter when Russian engineers visited Boeing for meetings in which I was not involved. As I ruefully learned each time, they tended to praise me so liberally for my “invaluable” contributions to Soviet aerospace that more than a few of my colleagues probably thought I should be led off in handcuffs.

It didn’t help that Russia’s first widebody jetliner, the IL-86, emerged with four engines under its wings like a 747. The first one entered service late in 1980 after a very protracted development. It is a poor airplane, though, and very few were built.

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