But, thanks to long-time FASF member and retired United Air Lines Captain, Nancy Aldrich, a loyal Texan, and regular aviation author, we have this fascinating and little-known story of how an East Texas refinery – and one of its sharper engineers, Tim Palucka – helped change the war’s outcome – in our favor – by his use of an obscure French patent on gasoline refining.
Without further ado, here’s the tale:
87 Octane Aviation Gasoline vs 100 130 Octane Aviation Gasoline in WWII
(This is a declassified article by the British Society of Chemists (Declassified in 2014) )
“It has always puzzled me as to why the German Luftwaffe kept on using 87 Octane Aviation Gasoline while the Americans and British used 100 Octane Gasoline in their Spitfire Fighters and Americans used 130 Octane in our P-51 and other fighters. (see both aircraft below)
This morning I discovered the reason!
It seems that the German and British aircraft both used 87 Octane Gasoline in the first two years of the war. While that was fairly satisfactory in the German Daimler-Benz V-12 engine, It was marginal in the British Rolls-Royce Merlin XX engine in British aircraft. It fouled the spark-plugs, caused valves to stick, And made frequent engine repair problems.
Then came lend-lease, and American aircraft began to enter British service in great numbers. If British engines hated 87 Octane gasoline, American, General Motors Built, Allison 1710 engines loathed and despised it.
Something had to be done!
Along came an American named Tim Palucka, a chemist for Sun Oil (SUNOCO) in their South East Texas Refinery.
Never heard of him? Small wonder, very few people have. He took a French formula for enhancing the octane of Gasoline, and invented the “Cracking Tower” and produced 100 octane aviation Gasoline.
This discovery led to great joy among our English Cousins and great distress among the Germans. A Spitfire fueled with 100 Octane gasoline was 34 miles per hour faster at 10,000 feet.
The need to replace engines went from every 500 hours of operation to every 1,000 hours. Which reduced the cost of British aircraft by 300 Pounds Sterling. Even more, when used in 4 engine bombers.
The Germans couldn’t believe it when Spitfires that couldn’t catch them a year ago started shooting their ME-109 E and G models right out of the sky.
Of course, the matter had to be kept secret. If the Germans found out that it was a French Invention, They’d simply copy the original French patents. If any of you have ever wondered what they were doing in that 3 story white brick building in front of the Sun Oil Refinery on Old Highway 90, that was it.
They were re-inventing gasoline.
The American Allison engines improved remarkably with 100 Octane gasoline but did much better when 130 octane gasoline came along in 1944. The 130 Octane also improved the Radial Engined Bombers we produced.
The Germans and Japanese never snapped to the fact that we had re-invented gasoline. Neither did our “Friends” the Russians.
100,000 Americans died in the skies over Europe. Lord only knows what that number would have been without “Super-Gasoline”. And it all was invented just a few miles west of Beaumont, and we never knew a thing about it.”
Aha – – – but there’s much more to this story than just recited above. In 1935, 6 years before Pearl Harbor and his country’s entry into WWII, Jimmy Doolittle, had retired from the Army and was working for the Shell Oil Company. He saw the need for a higher octane fuel if we should enter another war. So, click here, for more on the important role he played in the fuel octane race, which is not mentioned in the opening story above.
This story doesn’t go far enough. During the Quiet War (1939-1940) British fighters were dropping out of the skies over occupied France in droves due to “frozen engines.” Rolls Royce was desperately searching the free world for someone who could produce a ball bearing which would hold up in its high-performance Merlin aircraft engines. Automotive engineers at Cadillac Motor Car Division/General Motor came to the rescue in solving the problem. When the Battle of Britain began in earnest June 1940, the Luftwaffe encountered a much different fighter than it previously had over France.
Thanks for that new information, Mr. Hannan! Never heard that bit of WWII/Spitfire history before. It’s still my favorite airplane from that big fracas. Something about the aesthetics that seems unique . . . especially when in flight, with its awkward gear obscured in the wheel wells. I cherish an inspiring in-action painting of the Spitfire by our Brit Advisor, UK Aviation aficionado and aviation artist, Peter Westacott (who painted the “Jenny’s over Columbus” on our home page). He had the privilege of actually flying it! Thanks again for the new piece of aviation history . . . would be glad to have any other similar aviation tidbits you might have, too.
Tim Palucka is the author of the paper and NOT the inventory of 100 octane avgas. The inventor of US 100 avgas was Eugene Houdry.
Houdry patented a catalytic refining method in 1937 to make US 100 octane avgas. Houdry, a Frenchman who settled in America, licensed his method in a joint venture with Vacuum Oil Company (later Standard Oil) and Standard Oil then licensed the process to other oil companies like Sun Oil (Sunoco) and Shell Oil.
It gets more complicated, because the British found this US 100 octane avgas burned erratically in the Merlin engine. The RAF used US 100 fuel in 1937 through 1939, but they found that this US 100 octane fuel burned erratically in the Merlin engine. Thus, the RAF asked Standard Oil (ESSO) (led by Dr. Summit William J. Sweeney) to develop a new, better blend of 100 octane fuel. As a result, Dr. Sweeney’s team which included Charles E. Starr (both US citizens) and Alexander R. Ogston and P.H. Holt (both British citizens), but all working for Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (now Exxon) developed British Air Ministry (BAM) 100 fuel for the Royal Air Force. They all worked at ESSO laboratories, mainly in Baton Rouge, La., and Abingdon, England. This new blend became known as British Air Ministry (BAM) 100 avgas. The first tanker load of BAM 100, from the ESSO refinery in Aruba, left for England in June 1939. The RAF started using BAM 100 for selected squadrons in May 1940.
I don’t know the differences between US 100 and BAM 100 avgas. Nor do I know how BAM 100 and US 100/130 avgas differ.
“The need to replace engines went from every 500 hours of operation to every 1,000 hours.” I dispute the insinuation this was due to 100 octane avgas. Per the RAF, higher supercharger boost, made possible with 100 octane avgas, actually lowered engine MTBO. This increase in operating hours, if true, is almost certainly due to manufacturing improvements.
Lastly, according to the RAF testing, the Spitfire Mk IA was already faster than the Bf109E-3 even without 100 octane (which enable +12 lbs./sq. in. supercharger boost) and the higher octane only helped up increase speed up to 10,000 feet.
Thanks for the meaningful and educational contribution – and the corrections, Alan! Love to hear from anyone who has some useful info, and this is truly packed with great information. Anytime you’ve got a comment, please take a moment and share your thoughts with us.