Today in 1940, nearly 3000 people came to East Hartford to go on a three-quarter mile walking tour of a brand new two-million-dollar factory expansion at the Pratt and Whitney Aircraft company. The 280,000 square foot expansion, for which planning had begun the previous February and ground had been broken and construction started only four months before, represented a sudden and dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of the innovative aviation pioneer.
At the end of 1938, the situation at Pratt and Whitney could best have been described as bleak. Despite the company’s leadership in air-cooled aircraft engine technology, years of cutbacks in defense spending by the US government had drastically affected the entire aviation industry, whose total assets were then barely equal to one of the country’s big national breweries. By the end of the year, Pratt and Whitney had reduced its payroll to fewer than 3000 workers, and only had enough orders booked to keep the East Hartford plant running until May 1st.
What turned the company’s fortunes around so dramatically was a conference Adolph Hitler held with the leaders of France, Britain and Italy in Munich, Germany in late September of 1938.
Led by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who infamously claimed the concession would bring “peace in our time,” the group gave in to Hitler’s demands to allow him to annex the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia.
Returning from the Munich conference, French Premier Eduard Deladier had said, “If I had had 4,000 planes, there would have been no Munich.” Shortly thereafter, France, realizing war with Germany was inevitable, placed a two million dollar order for Pratt and Whitney aircraft engines, followed by a succession of additional orders that totaled 85 million dollars by the fall of 1939. To handle the sudden increase in demand, P&W hired 3000 new workers and began planning for the 280,000 square foot addition, whose construction the French government agreed to finance.
Known as the French building, and with a machine shop so large visitors were said to gasp when they first saw it, the facility welcomed thousands who came to see a building built for the battles to come, today in Connecticut history.
Excerpt, The Pratt and Whitney Aircraft Story 1952 United Aircraft Company (1952)
Richard DeLuca, “The Early Years of Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Company,” connecticuthistory.org