Mechanics in History: Penny For Your Thoughts

A Pratt & Whitney tradition — Since when?


The first penny I saw affixed to a Pratt & Whitney engine was on the nose of a fully restored AT-6C owned by Jim Levrett, a retired captain with FedEx (he hired on when it was still Flying Tiger Airlines). Levrett is now an AI who works on his own aircraft in a sumptuous hangar at Kingman, AZ. I accepted his invitation to take an air tour over Lake Havasu in his warbird last year, (spectacular!) and from his photos I already knew this “6” was a “10.”

There are few moments as dramatic as driving up to a spartan line of corrugated T-hangars which all look the same — until the heavy sliding doors slowly push open to reveal a colorful, shiny classic vintage aircraft like the AT-6. Levrett’s plane looked deceptively tame in the hangar, as he described the seven-year restoration. From tail to nose — the canopy, the rivets — everything screamed powerful, dependable, enduring. “Most of the airplane came from Conroe, TX,” says Levrett, “I took it apart to the last screw. The Pratt & Whitney 1340 power plant [600 hp] was purchased and rebuilt by Tulsa Aircraft Engines in Oklahoma. I’ve been flying this plane for about four years now.”

Safe from Arizona’s frequent wind-blown dirt, the engine looks like it just came off the assembly line at Pratt & Whitney. Up close and personal I noticed the penny, inserted and held in place with tiny stainless-steel wires which crisscrossed over the recessed inner diameter of a large nut. (Levrett described it more precisely as a “safety wire over a press-fit threaded insert on the sump cover.”) Many important aspects of engine parts, performance and history would surely have captured the attention of a pilot or mechanic, but I was transfixed by the penny. How did it get there and why?

Myth, superstition, and habit

The experts to ask are those who study and build engines as a profession. Graham White, (no relation to the famous English Pioneer Era aviator, Claude Graham-White) is vice president of the Aircraft Engine Historical Society Inc. located in Huntsville, AL. Author of several books, including “Allied Aircraft Pistons of WWII,” White speculated that the tradition had nothing at all to do with Pratt & Whitney manufacturing practices and most probably began following WWII, when engines were overhauled in the transition from military to civilian use.

Despite White’s pessimism that no one at Pratt & Whitney would know, much less care, about restored engines, retired P&W engineer Roger Bursey responded quickly to my request for help. This sentimental homage to an engine overhaul appeals to our Yankee ingenuity and is obviously not restricted to mechanics. Bursey enthusiastically contacted the P&W company historian and fellow retirees who might provide clues. Bursey writes, “I find your subject very interesting ... I have received information that the bolt head accommodates the precise size of a U.S. penny by coincidence, not [by a P&W] design or spec.” This requires some documentation to be sure, but it seems probable.

Levrett explained that he placed the penny on his engine himself as soon as he received it from Tulsa Aircraft’s top wrench Sam Thompson in Tulsa. Levrett picked up the custom from a crop duster, who wouldn’t think of flying without a penny on his own P&W. Pressed for further information on where the tradition began, by whom, and when, Levrett drew a blank.

“It’s just one of those things some of us do, but probably don’t know why.” He speculated it could be placed there to signify the last overhaul, like a date stamp, but suggested that I speak to mechanics who specialized in P&W engines. When asked, Thompson and his shop foreman, Rex Vaughan had more than one answer because each customer had a different reason for placing a penny on the engine. Some preferred to keep the power plant’s original penny for good luck and some insisted it be replaced with a coin dated the same year as the overhaul.

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