• U.S.

Business: Mighty Mite

3 minute read

A big handicap of jet aircraft engines is the tedious, time-wasting process of starting them. It takes about five minutes for a crew of three in a jeep rigged with ten storage batteries for extra electric power to rev an engine up to starting speed. If a jet plane lands on a field that lacks the starting equipment, it has to stay there.

Last week this clumsy business was on its way to becoming as obsolete as the automobile crank. At his Inglewood plant outside Los Angeles, 43-year-old John Clifford Garrett, boss of flourishing AiRe-search Manufacturing Co., jubilantly demonstrated what he claimed was the first practical U.S. self-starter for jet engines. The U.S. Navy was just as happy to sign a $36 million order to put the starter into mass production.

Garrett’s starter, no bigger than a fat suitcase, is a miniature gas turbine engine. It is started at the press of a button by its own storage battery, runs on kerosene, and has enough power to start a big jet engine in 30 seconds. It is light enough (150 Ibs.) to be carried in bombers, can be easily detached to save weight for combat missions. A smaller version (“The Baby”) will be made for fighters.

Thin Air. Cliff Garrett’s associates like to say that “he built a business out of thin air.” He literally did. His Garrett Corp. (AiResearch is a manufacturing division) grew by making devices to cool, blow and compress air, is now outranked only by Bendix and Sperry in the aircraft accessory business.

Oregon-born Garrett got into aircraft in 1928 as a 50¢-an-hour stockroom clerk, became the “purchasing department” for Jack Northrop, a fellow worker, when Northrop started his own company. But Garrett wanted to be his own boss, too. In 1936, when West Coast plane builders were having trouble getting the kind of tools they wanted, he set up shop as a middleman supplier.

He soon realized that higher altitudes and higher plane speeds would require pressurizing and cooling mechanisms. With Engineer Walter Ramsaur, he started AiResearch, marketed a device to cool engine oil at high altitudes, and began working with Boeing on pressurizing cabins. Garrett built the pressurizers for the B29, World War II’s only pressurized aircraft, began supplying virtually all pressurizing equipment for U.S. planes (except for Douglas, which makes its own). Garrett’s company branched out into superchargers and electronic equipment, turned out $112 million of World War II equipment and had 5,000 employees at its wartime peak. At war’s end, he had to trim his payroll to 600, and scratch for new ways to boost business.

Fat Orders. He found them in the small turbines which patient Engineer Ramsaur had been perfecting since 1943. So that jet pilots could endure the heat generated by air friction at supersonic speeds, a way had to be found to cool their cockpits. Ramsaur’s turbine provided the answer; by putting an engine’s heat to work turning the turbine, it cooled the air by expanding it, shot the air into the cockpit. As rearmament got under way, Garrett began turning out a total of 700 accessory products. With the Navy order for the self-starter, Garrett Corp. has a $120 million backlog, enough to keep 5,500 workers on three shifts busy for at least the next three years.

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