Mechanics in History: Penny For Your Thoughts

A Pratt & Whitney tradition — Since when?

Although he had not heard about this particular practice, retired US Airways Captain William Wilkerson shared another tradition known among commercial airline employees about P&W’s artistic, if not historic, logo. “About 10 years ago I happened to learn that Delta Airlines assigned the honor to a specific mechanic for maintaining each new plane with a P&W engine,” Wilkerson recalls. “The mechanic chosen for the job was allowed, and, in fact, expected to, remove the P&W logo, sometimes adapting it as a belt buckle.” Apparently not restricted to Delta, the origin of this tradition may prove equally as difficult to track down as the pennies — another day.

Capt. Wilkerson received his A&P license at the Baker’s School of Aeronautics in Nashville, TN, during 2004, in between flights across the pond in an Airbus. “I have always enjoyed working on my own plane [a vintage 195 Cessna] and now as an A&P I have an added feeling of confidence in its performance.” Wilkerson is considered an expert fly-fisherman and also holds a Marine Captain’s certificate. His curiosity and search for answers has no bounds. Similar in nature, is Neil Marshall, a marine archaeologist from California who I ensnared into a brainstorming session. Without hesitation Marshall made the analogy between the copper penny on a power plant and a mariners’ tradition dating back to Greek and Roman cultures.

According to his research, at the time of ship construction, a coin was placed under the foot of a mast inside the socket called the “mast-step,” for various reasons. Legend and myth suggest the coin was a good luck piece, or that sailors stashed their toll across the river Styx, or as a tithe to the god of the Winds. So steeped in custom has this become that it continues today, although no two boat or ship owners agree on why.

Archaeologists, wreck divers, and treasure hunters have depended upon salvaging these coins as a way to determine the earliest date a ship could have sunk (terminus post quem). Mariner Wilkerson threw in with Marshall’s engine/mast-step analogy. “Commercial airlines [and the military] which own hundreds of aircraft keep engine logs in a central place, whereas the private pilot might keep his book at home or in the hangar,” says Wilkerson. “The engine logbook rarely follows the engine, so it makes sense that under some circumstances the penny date could help in evaluating repairs.”

We will have decades ahead to ponder pennies on airworthy P&W engines. As Jim Levrett put it, “These are still some of the best piston engines going. Some were developed long before WWII. Their reliability and performance continually evolved especially with the introduction of leaded high octane fuels. Many have lasted over 60 years, and if maintained properly, they’ll probably last another 60.”

In the future, Levrett, White, Bursey, Peppito, Mangel, Thompson, or Wilkerson may call in another clue to resolve the origin of the P&W engine penny. That is, unless an AMT reader knows the answer already. If so, contact editor, Joe Escobar and we’ll follow up. I’ll personally send you a 2007 penny for your thoughts.

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