Avenir, Minto West, and Lakewood.
All projects that developers either will build, or hope to build, in the western reaches of Palm Beach County.
But in the late 1950s, one community — the tiny fertilizer-producing town of Apix — stood along the Beeline Highway west of Palm Beach Gardens.
Never heard of it? That’s because there was no Apix.
It was a phony town, fabricated to keep from prying eyes, especially Soviet ones, the secret work of Pratt & Whitney and the U.S. Air Force — creating a new breed of fuel that just might change the balance of the Cold War.
“The largest and most extraordinary project for using hydrogen as a fuel was carried out by the Air Force in 1956-1958 in supersecrecy,” historian John L. Sloop wrote in a NASA history of the effort. “Very few people are aware of it, even now, yet over a hundred million dollars were spent — perhaps as much as a quarter of a billion dollars.”
Project Suntan, Sloop wrote, “had all the air of cloak and dagger melodrama.”
More than a half century later, few details about Apix exist. A Pratt & Whitney spokesman said he had no information on it and the company declined access to the property where it once stood.
All that remains now of the mirage city is a single railroad box deep in the woods, along the CSX Railway track, on which is stenciled its name. And a tiny notation on a Palm Beach County survey marker. But photos of the town sit on the website of the Florida Memory collection, part of the state archives. The photos were taken by the predecessor to the Division of Tourism.
‘Secret Fuel One’
Suntan, like all of the early U.S. space program, really was about the Russkies.
“At that time, it wasn’t even known as liquid hydrogen. It was known as SF-1. Secret Fuel One,” former project engineer George Kannapel, now 81, said last month from Ohio.
A plane fueled by liquid hydrogen could fly very fast at very high altitudes. Read: spy planes. The U.S. military was looking for a step up from the iconic U2, which had become vulnerable to the Soviets.
And, down the road, the United States and the Soviet Union were in a race to space. Pratt eventually developed a liquid hydrogen engine that was used in early unmanned space missions and in the upper stages of the Saturn rockets for the Apollo moon missions. Ostensibly, the space race was all for the glory of exploration. But in those tense, early years of space exploration, it went without saying that control of space could give one of the Cold War combatants a profound life-or-death edge.
First, prototype “304” liquid-hydrogen fueled engines had to be tested.
“Not only was security an issue” at the Pratt & Whitney complexes in Ohio and Connecticut, Mark P. Sullivan wrote in a company history, “but handling hydrogen in a crowded metropolitan area was causing some gray hairs.”
Noisy, safe location
So in 1957, Pratt opted for an alternative: its new complex still under construction in Florida. The 10-square-mile facility’s sprawl and remote location assuaged safety concerns and allowed the company to make all the noise it wanted.
To provide security for the triangular complex, Pratt & Whitney bought 9,000 acres next to what’s now the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Refuge. To hide from speculators that the buyer was United Aircraft, a third party bought a ranch, then turned it over to what was then the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, which then slid state land over to UA.
The Florida Research and Development Center still was under construction, many of the roads that did exist still were impassable, and alligators were common, when the first engine in Project Suntan “was assembled on Aug. 18, 1957, and it was flown to Florida the next day,” former Pratt supervisor Richard Mulready wrote in a memoir.
With the Beeline not finished and the stretch of Interstate 95 in northern Palm Beach County decades away, engineers brought the engine on the “Sunshine State Parkway” — now Florida’s Turnpike — then onto Indiantown Road.
Fearful of a bouncy ride, they moved at no more than 15 mph, well below the expressway’s 40 mph minimum speed. Unable to show a suspicious Florida Highway Patrol trooper what was in the box, Mulready “sweet talked the policeman out of giving us a ticket for an oversized load, and we were allowed to proceed at 15 mph.”
Testing would require a lot of fuel. So the Air Force decided to build a plant to liquefy hydrogen at a rate of nearly a half ton a day. It would cost $6.2 million in 1957 dollars, or $52.6 million in 2014. A pipe carried the liquid hydrogen under the Beeline to the testing site.
The Suntan team called the plant “Mama Bear.” But as far as any nosy Palm Beach County resident was concerned, it was the Apix fertilizer plant.
“APIX” stood for “Air Products Incorporated, Experimental.” Land nearby was platted for houses and the small settlement was given a fake population.
“It was providing the cover,” Pratt’s retired director of engineering and space propulsion, Bill Creslein, who still lives in the area, said last month. Creslein said he never saw any details about the fake city; “You were told what you needed to know and nothing else.”
Kannapel, the former project engineer, was there only a few weeks.
“I was just a 24-year-old snotty new engineer on my first construction site,” he said. “I guess I didn’t know enough at that point to ask enough questions.”
He recalled punching metal tags for equipment with ID numbers that started with “APIX.”
“There was a drawing, I can remember, up on the trailer wall, of the so-called ‘workers’ village,’ ” Kannapel said. “I don’t think there was any actual construction. We were in a hurry to build the plant.”
Most of the workers “did not know what they were building,” Kannapel said.
Area residents might have been kept in the dark, but they weren’t stupid. According to John Sloop’s history of “Suntan,” one retired U.S. Army colonel who worked in local civil defense began to worry, and panic, that hydrogen meant a hydrogen bomb, and the idea of one being built so close to Clematis Street wasn’t to his liking. A delegation of security officials from Washington had to visit him and convince him to keep quiet.
Even before “Mama Bear” was finished, the Air Force decided it wasn’t enough. It built a second plant a few hundred yards away. Finished in January 1959, it had a capacity of some 30 tons and cost $27 million, more than $200 million in today’s dollars. Its name: “Papa Bear.”
It never would be used for Suntan.
Within six months, officials had grown convinced the concept wasn’t practical. It took so much energy to keep the pipeline cold enough that managers found it more efficient to just drive it across the Beeline in insulated tank trucks. The operation lingered until February 1959, when managers formally asked that it be canceled.
And “Apix,” which never existed much more than on paper, died pretty much the same way. With, apparently, no one in Palm Beach County the wiser, then or now.
Liquid Hydrogen As A Propulsion Fuel, 1945-1959, by John L. Sloop (NASA History Series)
Advanced Engine Development at Pratt and Whitney, by Dick Mulready
Dependable Engines: The Story of Pratt & Whitney, by Mark P. Sullivan
Bill Creslein and George Kannapel
Florida Memory, a division of Florida Library and Information Services, Florida Department of State
Jeff Davies, Historic Palm Beach County! Facebook page