A PLANE TOO SOON
Juan Trippe, JFK and the Supersonic Transport
As Bob Gandt so neatly characterized the atmosphere at Pan American World Airways during the heady days of the early space race in his book SkyGods, newly hired pilots at Pan Am would be told:
“Congratulations gentlemen – you are going to be SST pilots.”
It made sense. A joint British-French consortium was hard at work designing a supersonic transport, or SST. America had taken note of course, and things were moving forward, although it was still below the public’s radar. But in June 1963, the Kennedy Administration was ready to unveil America’s answer to European competition - the government was going to work with the private sector to develop an American SST.
On June 5th 1963, President John Kennedy stood before the graduating class at the US Air Force Academy and said:
"it is my judgment that this Government should immediately commence a new program in partnership with private industry to develop at the earliest practical date the prototype of a commercially successful supersonic transport superior to that being built in any other country of the world. An open, preliminary design competition will be initiated immediately among American airframe and powerplant manufacturers with a more detailed design phase to follow."
Credit: Photograph (left) by Robert Knudsen, from the JFK Presidential Library and Museum
But less than 24 hours earlier, with his prepared remarks sitting on his desk in the White House, JFK had been handed an AP wire service news release saying Juan Trippe had just announced that Pan Am was placing orders for six European-built SSTs – the plane that would eventually fly as the Concorde.
Credit: Photograph by Abbie Rowe, National Park Service, from the JFK Presidential Library and Museum
The president was stunned - and angry. You can hear it on the following audio recordings, provided through the archive at the JFK Presidential Library in Boston. (One historical note: according to the JFK Library, President Kennedy himself controlled when his phone conversations were recorded, and there are only 12 hours of recorded conversations in total for his entire tenure in office.)
First, with Vice-president Johnson:
Credit: Photograph LBJ Library Photo by Yoichi Okamoto
It was followed by a second phone conversation with FAA Administrator Najeeb Halaby (who one day would head Pan Am himself).
Credit: Photograph by Abbie Rowe, National Park Service, from the JFK Presidential Library and Museum, Boston
Click to hear audio
And finally, a third conversation with Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon.
Credit Photograph (left) by Robert L. Knudsen, from the JFK Presidential Library and Museum
Click to hear audio
It would be another six years before the Concorde would actually fly. Almost a decade later, Pan Am was still involved in testing the SST waters, and sent the late Captain Paul Roitsch, the airline’s Chief Pilot – Technical (and former president of the Pan Am Historical Foundation), to familiarize himself with the Concorde. Of course, it all came to naught. Although in 1969 it had options to buy 15 Boeing SST’s Pan Am never bought any supersonic aircraft and Boeing canceled its SST program in 1971 (as did Lockheed with it’s SST program). All the remaining Concordes are now permanently grounded and on public display after decades years of service for Air France and British Airways. No other airlines bought any SST’s.
Thanks to Laurie Austin, Archivist, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.