In Face of Demolition, Strong Legacy For East Hartford Turbine Testing Lab

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Pratt & Whitney's Andrew Willgoos Turbine Laboratory complex in East Hartford as it looked in the 1950s. It was once the largest, privately-owned turbine development laboratory in the world. Photo courtesy of Pratt & Whitney.

Pratt & Whitney’s celebrated turbine test laboratory in East Hartford — the cradle for the development of its first jet engines in the 1950s and a long line that would follow — took more than two years to build atop the banks of the Connecticut River.

Now, it is taking that long to demolish.

Once, the Andrew Willgoos Turbine Laboratory sprawled out over nearly 60 acres and was the largest, privately-owned turbine research facility in the world. Through the 1970s, it was the primary test facility for Pratt’s jet engines; and even though it couldn’t handle larger engines such as those that equipped the Boeing 777 airliner in the mid-1980s, it remained in use until about seven years ago.

Demolition has been underway for two years, but is now nearing completion. Pratt is finalizing the sale of about 4.5 acres of the site, off High Street, to neighboring Goodwin College for a magnet high school. The remaining 55 acres backing up to the river are expected to be sold as well.

Demolition at the Willgoos Turbine Testing Laboratory in East Hartford is nearing completion. Photo by Patrick Raycraft/The Hartford Courant.

On a visit to the site a few days ago, I spoke with Jeff Bridgman, who manages Pratt facilities in East Hartford and Middletown, as we looked past the rubble of a half dozen buildings already razed to the main test building. All that remains there is the precast concrete columns looking like massive cinder blocks that appear to defy efforts of heavy-duty pounding equipment chipping away at them.

Bridgman said the columns are nearly five feet thick in some places.

“They had to handle the vibration of the engines,” Bridgman told me. “They are tough to knock down.”

Pratt didn’t have an estimate for demolition costs, but it could easily run well into the millions of dollars. The razing of the site stretched out because asbestos first needed to be removed. Much of the concrete rubble is being recycled on the site, filling in foundations sunk deep into the ground.

In the past decade, this stretch of riverfront has changed dramatically, as Goodwin College has expanded its campus. Where once there was an oil tank “farm,” the college’s main academic building stands. Construction has begun on one magnet high school and there are plans for another.

But in the late 1940s, this was Pratt country, where a decade earlier it built its massive headquarters and manufacturing plant on Main Street. It also was the end of the World War II, an era when Pratt prospered with military contracts for its piston-driven engines but it also faced a new daunting reality. Pratt would have to get in the jet engine business to survive.

In his 2008 book, “Dependable Engines: The Story of Pratt & Whitney,” former Pratt spokesman Mark P. Sullivan tells the story of how Pratt executives approached Frederick Rentschler, founder and president of parent company United Aircraft, and the board of directors about building a new, multimillion dollar test lab. The lab, they argued, would be essential to developing jet engines.

“It was one of those ‘bet the company’ moves that are so famous in aviation,” Sullivan writes. One Pratt executive many years later recalls:

“The laboratory was going to cost $15 million. That doesn’t sound like much today but it was a lot of money back then. I think the total fixed assets of the corporation was maybe around $10 million, and the thought of a $15 million addition to those assets was a pretty tough lump for the directors to go for.”

Construction began in 1947 and the new facility was opened in mid-1950. From the outside, the complex appeared as tall, windowless concrete cubes, rarely open to the public. But inside, Pratt engineers tested engines and components in simulated atmospheres from sea level to an altitude of 100,000 feet, according to Sullivan. The power to run the altitude test cells incredibly came from the boiler and engines of a surplus Navy destroyer escort.

Andrew Willgoos, Pratt & Whitney's chief engineer from the company's founding in 1925 until his death in 1949. Willgoos is shown standing in front of Pratt's first headquarters on Capitol Avenue in Hartford. Photo Courtesy of Pratt & Whitney.

Pratt chose to name the facility after Willgoos, who was the chief engineer of Pratt from the time it was organized on Capitol Avenue in Hartford in 1925. Willgoos was instrumental in the development of the Pratt’s famous line of Wasp engines. During World War II, nearly 364,000 “Twin Wasp” engines were produced by Pratt & its licensees, according to Sullivan.

Willgoos didn’t live to see the test lab that would bear his name. He died in 1949 shoveling snow in his driveway so he could come into work, Sullivan wrote.

The lab was expanded several times in the 1950s, eventually encompassing 25 test cells. The growth did not come without incident, however. In 1959, during the construction of one addition, an explosion killed a Pratt worker, according to accounts in both The Courant and The Hartford Times.

Today, Pratt does much of its engine testing in Middletown where it built a lab to accommodate larger engines and West Palm Beach, Fla.

“We simply outgrew it here,” Bridgman told me.

Did you work at the Willgoos lab or have any memories of the once-celebrated facility? Please share your stories below.

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23 thoughts on “In Face of Demolition, Strong Legacy For East Hartford Turbine Testing Lab

  1. Bob M.

    My father spent much of his career in the “Test House” in both Wilgoos and The Klondike when he worked in department 955, Experimental Test. It was also the first location of the Pratt and Whitney Fuel Cell Group before it was spun off into its own division and re-located to South Windsor. We always knew when the engine tests were running from the huge plumes of steam that could be seen for miles around and from the kitchen window of our hillside home.

  2. Thomas J. Gorton

    My father, Bill Gorton, was Chief Engineer for Pratt & Whitney in the late 40’s and through the 50’s and beyond. I recall him talking about the test cells many times and the countless hours he spent in them, perfecting a variety of Pratt’s radial engines and jet powerplants that provided the proplulsion for so many of the then, new jetliners. My father had a slight hearing loss which he attributed to his time spent in the Willgoos test cells, part of the physical plant that that contributed to the history of flight.

  3. Joe F

    I spent many hours at Willgoos testing engines at altitude. The buildings were alive when the facility was “on line”, the whole place just hummed. Amazing capabilities by intellegent and dedicated people

  4. Kenneth R. Gosselin Post author

    I can’t imagine how noisy it must have been when the tests were running! I covered East Hartford as a town reporter for many years before moving to the business desk, and I never knew — until reporting this story — how integral Willgoos was to the development of Pratt’s jet engine program.

  5. Greg M.

    As a young P&W engineer in the early ’90s, I spent many days and nights covering test on the PW4000 as we developed the higher thrust versions for airplanes like the A330 and B777. The amount of energy these cells had to contain and direct was enormous. To say the buildings, with 3-5 foot concrete walls, were alive when these engines ran is an understatement! Sad to see them go – but many great memories of the engineers, test stand workers, and especially the engines.

  6. paul cloutier sr. The Capt.

    I spent almost 40 yrs. @ the Goose in the power house section, it was unbelievable. The crews in test & powerhouse were one of a kind. I miss all those crazy guys.There will never be another Andrew Van Dean Willgoos Turbine Lab.

    1. Rejean Vaillancourt

      Time to take the lab down ,Sad yes .So many good moments ,So many great people who I had the oportunity to work with for almost 40 yrs.
      Testing these engines in this facility ,Saved
      countless lives over the years.


    I started working at Pratt in 1972. My Grandfather always
    told me stories about the years he spent working at Pratt,
    which influenced me to want to work at Pratt. When I first
    started working, I wanted to see everything ! I was blown
    away how big the shop and test areas were. During the nineties I was in the Component Test Group, and we tested
    Fan, Compressor and all Turbine rigs at all flight conditions at the Willgoos Test Stands.
    It is sad to me to see all the history and
    capability the Goos had be demolished. I have many great memories of all the great people that I worked with there
    and it is sad to me to see it demolished. So much information was generated in the testing that took place in
    that facility, so Engineering could design the Engines that
    helped Pratt advertise Dependable Engines !

  8. John Remensnyder

    Sad to see such a piece of aviation history demolished. I worked at the “Goose” in the late 1960’s under Joe Phillips and Joe Barlock and witnessed some major expansions to handle the JT-9D. The staff was dedicated and a pleasure to work with.

  9. Bill Doak

    Nice story, Ken. Having been turned away for the last two years trying to document this demolition, glad to see P&W finally decided to pay homage to the key role of Willgoos now that the building is all but erased. Too bad secrecy over the building was still paramount that media was not allowed into the site until the main structure was all but totally demolished.

  10. william murray

    Sorry to see the facility go. I spent many a day/night/weekend at the facility. It was unique and was definitely ‘state-of-the-art’ during its existence. Hopefully its demise will serve a better purpose!
    Bill Murray, PWA ret 1993

  11. Ann M Gledhill (Annie G)

    The Willgoos Lab was “One-of-a-Kind” Facility.
    I retired December 2011 after 45 years at Willgoos. As an assistant tester to the test stand operators, a secretary, and a component stand operator in the fuel systems labs. I was sadden when the decision was made to close the Willgoos. To end the history of our Pratt & Whitney Jet Engines testing facility. A great group of test personal and power house should be credited for all of our sucessfull testing. We are in the history books. Annie G.

  12. Scott Brinckerhoff

    In doing some research a year or so ago, I learned about a Pratt & Whitney record that Andy Willgoos sadly missed. He died days before the Wasp Major engines he did so much to design and build set a world record. On March 2, 1949, the day before his funeral, the Boeing B-50 Lucky Lady II landed in Texas to complete the first nonstop, round-the-world flight in history. Four 3500-horsepower Wasp Majors ran smoothly for the 23,452 mile journey that took 94 hours and one minute.

  13. Christine A Warren

    I have been a security officer for Pratt and Whitney for 24 years. I have walked in those test cells and labs at all hours of the day and night 365 days a year.
    I cannot say I’ll miss those caverness test cells the odor that used to come from some of them, the ice and snow or the cold wind off the river in the winter. What I do miss are the people who once proudly called the Willgoos or “The Gooose” “Home” for so many years. The job loss and the building tear down is heart wrenching to those of us that can remember when it was a bustling center of activity.
    I hope Goodwin College keeps the history and the honor of the people who made that site what it was. I pray UTC/ Pratt and Whitney, will donate archives to the college to display so future generations know the blood sweat and tears that were shed on that site.

  14. Bill Linn

    Being intimately involved in all areas of the “Goose”,
    as a welder/fabricator (probably the last one there), I have many serious and humerous memories of my time there.I have nothing but praise for the supervision. Always was I treated with respect as I did them. I miss them and the times we had together.
    Of the multitudinous jobs I have done in every nook and cranny in the “Goose”,I would love to know what became of the flagpole by the tank farm as well as the table that held the model of the Willgoos, both were fabricated and welded by me. Would make great souvenirs !!!!

  15. allan schubert

    In a temporary assignment to the fuel lab Airace shack at Willgoos in the late fifties while CANEL was being built,I spent a week running up and down the five flights of stairs in the engine lab filling in for vacationing regulars..nearly killed me…the regulars who worked there must have had the best legs in the world, as wherever you needed to be, there were the endless stairways…but it was exciting and I loved every minute of it.[Retired 1993]

  16. Luis Sanchez

    It is definitely sad to see such a landmark disappear.
    I worked at the Willgoos facility in the mid-80. Our Controls group office was located in that facility together with all the labs to test diferent components and the closed loop bench for EECs. Then, to top it off the altitude test stands! Who can’t remember the engines stall tests and the shakeup of the building? Good memories…

  17. Bob Abernethy

    The calculations to see where we were running, altitude and Mach number, were horrendouse. They took forever. So I developed nomograms that did the calculation in seconds versus many minutes the other way. The powers to be said no way so we set up a race which came out seconds versus many minutes. With Paul Wilson and Jim Davis’s help we did a formal race. We got the same answers in a fraction of the time but the nomograms were never adopted. Someone on high did not trust them.

    When we were competing with Rolls Royce, J75 versus Conway, we had nine flowmeters hook up to the engine in series. I was told to record the lowest reading…I did not like that order. Bob

  18. Col.Richard Guertin, USAF Ret.

    My dad Art “Frenchy Guertin spent most of his adult life at PWA, some in test. He loved that place but most of all he loved his “boys”. He often bragged about the dedication they had to building “The best damn engines in the world”. I started in the “Goose” in the early 50’s
    Bill Kerwin, my mentor. Rodger Barrio another of my bosses. Mel Bransaford my friend. Dr Ponds, PHD Allowed me to grow by giving me the Duct work water flow nozzel project. Drafted, I left PWA for the AF and flew PWA powered aircraft and always felt comfident that they would not let me down, because my dad and his boy’s built the “best damn engins in the world. The “Goose” is gone, long live the Goose.

  19. Phil Tayntor

    I was an experimental test engineer at CANEL and later at Pratt & Whitney in East Hartford in 60’s and 70’s. Ran JT9D fan blade containment tests in the Spin Pit at Willgoos. Many fond memories of that facility.
    Always enjoyed “exploring” the facility, as I was often given the opportunity to show prospective new engineers around. At least one I can remember was Ed Crow who became a close colleague until I left in 1975.

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