Mechanics in History: Penny For Your Thoughts

A Pratt & Whitney tradition — Since when?


“Mary Dilda races her AT-6 (“Two of Hearts”) at Reno and has a world qualifying speed record with her P&W,” says Vaughan with pride — “I know for sure there’s a penny on that engine.”

Levrett also referred me to Nick Mangel, owner of Aero-Engines in Los Angeles, CA, which has been in business overhauling round engines since 1955. Nick soon had two reference books in hand: “The Aircraft Engine and Its Operation” and the “Aeronautical Vest Pocket Handbook” (both by Pratt & Whitney). The former listed dozens of aircraft which used P&W R1340, R1690, and R2800 that could have started the penny tradition. (The 985 engines may have pennies, but are not easy to see.) At this point I decided I had to limit my penny quest to the R1340 WASP engines of which Nick quoted statistics of 34,966 produced between 1925-1960. I also narrowed down the Wasps to those used on the AT-6. These planes were first manufactured in 1940 (“Two of Hearts” was built in 1945) and many were demilitarized, used in foreign countries, and then returned whole or in parts to the United States. My AT-6/R1340 exclusive did not last long.

“I’ve had engines come up to my shop from Pensacola [FL], preserved you might say, untouched since they were made, with pennies on the engine dated in the 1930s,” says Mangel. I was back to including pennies on Wasps and Hornets prior to WWII for all kinds of planes including Lockheed Vegas, and Chance Vought-built Navy observation aircraft. Wiley Post’s Vega used the same P&W around the world twice between 1931-1933.

Amelia Earhart’s Vega used the P&W power plant for her solo flight across the Atlantic in 1932. I don’t know if either engine was penny-less.

Ever since that day in Kingman, I purposely look for more pennies. On a whim I visited the hangar at Falcon Field, AZ, belonging to Air Response Inc., where three generations of aircraft mechanics work side-by-side overhauling radial engines. Gene, Ed, and Billy Packard work together like one of their fine-tuned engines. Billy led me to an AT-6 adorned with a P&W engine which they maintain for a client. “We re-assembled this entire plane.

The engine came from Sam Thompson in 2003 with a penny already in place,” he said, pointing to the ‘03 penny. “We mostly work on Wrights here but if I overhauled a P&W I’d put a penny on it, because my dad does it. My dad does it because his dad does it.” Even though we didn’t solve the penny mystery I’ll be back to interview Granddad Gene, Dad Ed, and young Billy another day.

My next encounter with a penny on an engine occurred at the restoration hangar for the Southern California Wing of the Commemorative Air Force (at Camarillo). As the guest of veteran pilot and CAF volunteer, Ceci Statford, I met Col. Joseph Peppito, chief maintenance officer, who gave me a tour of their facility. The shop was a flurry of activity with a dozen volunteer mechanics working on the “China Doll” (C46),” a vintage Fairchild, and engines for a restored Hellcat, a Bearcat, and a Spitfire. Peppito gracefully answers visitor’s questions while overseeing five or six separate projects at one time. Amid disarticulated props, wings, wheels, and engines Peppito led me to two P&W engines adorned with a penny. He could not recall the first time he’d seen it done, but he was certain he had read about it “somewhere in a magazine.” So far, he hasn’t been able to locate his source, but I doubt he’ll ever give up looking.

Mariners toss in their two cents

Although less common, pennies can be found on P&W engines other than set into the bolt, which means the tradition is loosely interpreted by an A&P as to how and where it is affixed (for example on 985s). Skip King, AI at McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, CA, showed me 985 engines on a Twin Beech and an SNJ with a 1340. I peered inside the cowlings but found no pennies.

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