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People form long lines to see the mock up of the Supersonic Transport, June 1970. Photo courtesy of Boeing. View the slideshow.

People form long lines to see the mock up of the Supersonic Transport, June 1970. Photo courtesy of Boeing. View the slideshow.


Economic Tailspin At Sonic Speed

Deborah Wang

The economy around Puget Sound may be hobbling along today, but it's worth remembering what things were like 40 years ago. Back then, Seattle was a company town, with Boeing far and away the biggest employer. At the end of the 1960s, business at Boeing had begun to slow. The country was entering a recession, airlines were cancelling orders and tens of thousands of Boeing employees were being laid off. But the crowning blow came on March 24, 1971, 40 years ago today. That's when Congress cancelled funding for what was the company's premier commercial aircraft program — the SST, or Supersonic Transport. Many regard that event as the height of what's come to be known as the Boeing bust. KUOW's Deborah Wang has this look back at the history of the ill–fated SST.


Mike Lombardi was just a kid in the 1960s, but he distinctly remembers what it felt like to drive past the big building near Boeing Field where work on the SST was underway.

Lombardi: "And at that time they had a painting, a full size painting, side view of the airplane on the side of the building, so I would always make sure that I would ask my dad to slow down and go past that so I could see that. It was really, for a kid that was something, that was really neat."

Back then, there was a lot of excitement about the new plane. The SST looked like no other commercial jetliner. It was long and slender, with a pointed nose that could drop down on takeoff and landing, and with wings that looked almost triangular, kind of like a space ship.

But the biggest deal about the SST was that it was designed to go fast, around 1900 miles per hour — close to three times the speed of sound.

Boeing promotional film: "Thanks to our SST's greater speed, no country will be more than a half day away."

This is an old Boeing promotional film from 1967. It's all about how the SST was critical to keeping the US competitive.

Boeing promotional film: "The United States SST is more than a highly effective means of transportation for people and products. It is a symbol of America's strength, of her determination to maintain a dominant position in the world's skyways."

At the time, the US was in a race to develop a supersonic jet. The Soviets and a British and French consortium were developing their own much smaller versions of the SST. The Soviet plane would be the first to fly in 1968. The Concorde flew two months later.

Mike Lombardi, that kid who would drive by and gawk at the old SST plant, now works as the archivist and corporate historian for Boeing. He says back then, it was just assumed that supersonic travel was the future of flight.

Lombardi: "We look at the space program, and going to the moon, and there was just this tremendous optimism that we could do anything. And the goals of designers are always to go faster, to go farther, to go higher, so of course the next logical step was to go from subsonic jet to supersonic. It wasn't even questioned, that was just the direction that things would go."

And so the building on East Marginal Way became the nerve center for the Boeing SST. Inside, engineers worked to build a full–sized mock up of the plane, something like an early prototype. The program was underwritten largely by taxpayer dollars. President Kennedy had committed the funds back in 1963, although Boeing promised to repay the money after the jet went into commercial production.

Dave Huntman was a young systems engineer. In 1967, he moved his family across the country to work on the SST program.

Huntman: "I had a ball, that's the only thing I can tell you. It was totally new, it was an interesting place, it was a challenging place, and I learned a lot."

But even as Huntman started work on the SST, the popular view of the plane was starting to shift. By the end of the decade, a whole host of concerns were being raised — about pollution in the upper atmosphere, about the noise generated by sonic booms, about the extraordinary cost.

Chief among the critic was Senator William Proxmire. He led the fight in Congress to kill government funding for the SST. And on March 24, 1971, he prevailed. By a close vote, Congress defunded the program. Engineer Dave Huntman remembers the day well.

Huntman. "Senator Proxmire was a senator from Wisconsin. It sounds a little bit stupid, but he killed the program. And it took me years afterwards to buy Wisconsin cheese."

The reaction from Boeing was swift. The very next day, Boeing managers sent around a memo saying they were preparing to layoff some 7000 employees in the Puget Sound area. The memo said the decision was made with the deepest of regrets.

Clark Beck was an engineer and a supervisor on the SST program. He remembers when those layoffs began.

Beck: "There was a guy every day who came in with a briefcase, and he went up to the front office, and what he had were layoff slips. And so people, that's the kind of feeling of what was going on."

And what was going on at the time was that the country was in a recession. Boeing was already suffering from a downturn in the airline industry, and had laid off tens of thousands of employees. But historian Mike Lombardi says the loss of the SST was by far the biggest blow.

Lombardi: "The end of the SST was so dramatic. This hope for the future, this very optimistic program, when that was cancelled, it was like, what else can there be, this is just terrible, and so I think that's when people started feeling that this might really be the end and almost apocalyptic."

And as the program ended, engineers were told to gather up all their drawings and their data to be archived. Engineer Dave Huntman recalls that the big full–sized mock up of the plane — the one he had worked on for four years — was unceremoniously dismantled and hauled out of the building.

Huntman: "There was a place south of Boeing, opposite what is now Sea–Tac, which was a scrap heap. And that's where our mock up ended up. And to drive past that road and see that sections of the airplane, the structure, was criminal. It really was."

Eventually, Boeing auctioned off the pieces to a collector for a little more than $13,000.

Lombardi: "Here's SST ... "

40 years later, historian Mike Lombardi takes me inside the Boeing archives to look for artifacts from the SST era. The archive holds photographs, documents on microfiche and old film reels about the program.

Lombardi: "Here's a visit to the SST mock–up. That would be an interesting one to look at ... "

There are also several models of the SST sitting on dusty metal shelves. All these years later, the plane still has a futuristic feel to it.

Lombardi: "Oh, its beautiful airplane. I mean, you look at it, it says speed."

And Lombardi says the idea of the supersonic transport didn't die entirely. It made a brief comeback in the 1990s with a project called the high speed civil transport. Lombardi says the dream of supersonic commercial flight lives on at Boeing, it's just waiting for the right time and the right technology.

And, as for the SST mock up — the one that got auctioned off for $13,000 — it may make a comeback as well. A small piece of it still survives in a museum in California, and there are discussions about bringing it up to the Museum of Flight, just a few hundred feet from where the SST lived and died.

I'm Deborah Wang, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW

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