GE Aircraft Engines
GE Aircraft Engines
Wholly Owned Subsidiary of the General Electric Company
Sales: $7.37 billion
SICs: 3724 Aircraft Engines and Engine Parts; 3519 Internal Combustion Engines Nee
The GE Aircraft Engines unit of the General Electric Company is the world’s leading manufacturer of aircraft propulsion systems. The company attributes its success in the industry to heavy investment in research and development, stringent quality control, and excellent customer relations. GE Aircraft Engines is also one of the nation’s top exporters, supplying engines for a wide range of commercial and military aircraft, boats, hydrofoils, and industrial power generators.
One of more than a dozen independently managed divisions of General Electric, GE Aircraft Engines traces its origins to 1901, when its parent company began development of steam turbine systems. These turbines maximized the extraction of energy from steam pressure by using a series of fan blades to drive power generators. As a leader in electric power generation, General Electric adapted the turbine concept to accept other forms of pressurized energy. In 1903 GE scientist Dr. Sanford Moss developed America’s first gas-powered turbine, regarded by some as the ancestor of the jet engine.
During World War I, the aircraft industry recognized the need for light engines that could provide the same power as larger models. During this time, many planes were unable to climb and maneuver at altitudes above 5,000 feet, and many simply stalled, their engines unable to function effectively at high altitudes, where the air was thinner. In 1919, drawing on its experience with turbine compression systems, GE developed a supercharger, which took energy from the rotation of a piston engine’s crank shaft and used it to compress the air in the engine’s cylinders. This enabled conventional engines to burn more fuel and increase their power. By 1939 superchargers had become a necessary part of advanced aircraft, and GE had become an important manufacturer of these devices.
The leading engine builders during this period were Pratt & Whitney, whose Wasp engine dominated the industry, and Curtiss-Wright, manufacturer of the Cyclone engine. GE’s experience with aircraft propulsion was strictly limited to turbo-compression systems; the company had never built an aircraft engine. However, their inexperience would later prove to be a tremendous asset.
In 1939 British inventor Frank Whittle successfully tested a revolutionary new type of gas turbine. This engine used a series of fan blades to compress air into a combustion chamber. A high-grade fuel was then detonated in this chamber, causing enormous pressure. The gases from the detonation were channeled through a tailpipe, where they passed additional fan blades that drove the compressor fans at the front of the engine. In the process, the gases expelled through the tailpipe produced enormous amounts of thrust. Whittle’s engine was capable of propelling an aircraft at speeds nearly double those of even supercharged, piston-powered aircraft.
Realizing that a similar engine was under development in Germany, the British sought to gain an advantage in the war by being the first to develop a jet aircraft. However, Britain’s leading engine builder, Rolls-Royce, was swamped with orders for piston engines and unable to devote full attention to Whittle’s engine. So the British turned to the United States with an offer to license development of Whittle’s engine. Concerned about the competition that Rolls-Royce would face after the war, the British government stipulated that top U.S. manufacturers Pratt & Whitney, Curtiss-Wright, and Allison not be awarded the license. Rather, they opted to select the licensee from three companies whose emphasis was on the research and development of turbine engines and not on manufacturing: Allis Chalmers, Westinghouse, and GE.
GE created a separate engine division within its supercharger group in October 1941, and shortly thereafter it won a contract to develop the Whittle engine. The engine unit established design and production facilities at Lockland, Ohio; Lynn, Massachusetts; and Schenectady, New York. Dr. Moss was called out of retirement to aid in the construction of the jet engine.
The first of the company’s designs, the GE I-A, was built and successfully tested six months later. The engine was matched to the Bell Aircraft XP-59A, which made its first flight in October 1942. Unbeknownst to GE and Rolls-Royce, however, German engineers had successfully flown their own jet aircraft two years earlier.
While the I-A could generate great thrust, it guzzled fuel, vibrated badly, and contained parts that wore out quickly. GE continued to improve the engine, hoping to develop a model that would be practical for aerial combat.
The first American jet suitable for combat didn’t emerge until after the war, when GE’s I-40/J33 engine was matched with the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star. The company also developed the T31, its first turboprop—or jet-powered propeller—engine. This engine was the first from GE to incorporate an axial flow compressor, as opposed to the traditional centrifugal compressor.
By 1946 the axial flow design had been incorporated into a new engine, the J35. Able to produce 4,000 pounds of thrust, the J35 was chosen to drive the Boeing B-47 and Northrop B-49 flying wing. Allison, with whom GE maintained a close relationship, acquired licenses to build the J33 and J35 that year.
But when the government’s carefully orchestrated coordination of the industry ended, GE terminated its technological partnership with Allison and began work on a new design, the J47. This 5,000-pound thrust engine powered the North American F-86 and B-45 and helped UN forces maintain air superiority over Russian-built MiG jet fighters during the Korean War.
Westinghouse lost its competitive edge in jet engines when it proved unable to adapt to changes specified by the Navy, losing millions of dollars in potential contracts. Stepping in to take its place was Pratt & Whitney, a major subcontractor to Westinghouse that was eager to enter the jet engine market.
While the GE staff, now under veteran Harold Kelsey, was busy developing its J73, with 7,000 pounds of thrust, Pratt & Whitney began work on a 10,000-pound engine, the J57/JT3. This engine immediately established Pratt & Whitney as a major force in jet propulsion, particularly after it was chosen to power Boeing’s massive new B-52 bomber.
GE introduced a new high-performance J79 engine in 1953. This engine powered the Convair B-58, Lockheed F-104, and McDonnell F-4 Phantom. Unlike Pratt & Whitney’s J57, the J79 was designed for supersonic flight aboard lighter strike fighters and bombers.
While GE and Pratt & Whitney were the leading jet makers, their products were not yet in direct competition. This changed when airline companies began voicing demands for passenger jetliners. As Boeing, Douglas, and Convair scrambled to build such an aircraft, the engine makers began adapting their military designs for civilian markets. GE hoped to build a commercial derivative of its J79 but was unable to offer the engine in time for Boeing, whose 707 was introduced in 1954 with Pratt & Whitney JT3 engines. Furthermore, a year later, Douglas chose the JT3 for its DC-8.
Finally, in 1956, GE’s CJ805 was ready to be marketed. At the time, however, the only available launch customer was Convair, whose 880 and 990 jetliners entered the market well after Boeing and Douglas had begun deliveries for the massive orders they had received. GE’s future in commercial aviation was thus tied to a manufacturer whose airline markets were in decline and whose jetliner had arrived too late to garner significant sales. Furthermore, Pratt & Whitney ensured its leading position in commercial jet propulsion in 1964, when its JT8D engine was chosen to power the new Boeing 727 and Douglas DC-9. Without a position in the commercial market, GE was forced to abandon jetliners.
Nevertheless, the company had achieved success in other markets. Its jet engines were chosen to power missiles, helicopters, hovercraft, speedboats, and auxiliary power generators. GE also developed a J85 series that became a popular engine for smaller private jets.
Gerhard Neumann was put in charge of GE’s engine group in 1961. He immediately took steps to centralize administrative and other divisional functions, as well as to promote greater teamwork. The engine division would again be reorganized in 1968, becoming an autonomous business with Neumann as its chief executive officer. Due to the company’s strong research capabilities, GE won contracts to build several special engines, including a nuclear-powered jet engine—although this project was later cancelled over concerns for public safety in the event of a crash.
When the Air Force put out specifications for a new triple-sonic high-altitude bomber in 1963, GE was chosen to develop the engines. In order to produce the 30,000 pounds of thrust required, the company sought to develop the use of boron as a fuel for its J93 engine. Although problems during development necessitated the return to conventional fuels, the J93 was a success, enhancing GE’s reputation as a hypersonic engine manufacturer.
When Boeing began work on its supersonic transport, or SST, it turned to GE to build the engines. GE developed a derivative of the J93, called the GE4, that could generate nearly 70,000 pounds of thrust and propel the SST at up to 1,800 miles per hour. Nevertheless, the SST project was eventually cancelled after skyrocketing development costs caused airlines to lose interest in supersonic flight.
Among the most important contracts awarded GE during this time involved developing the engines for Lockheed’s enormous C-5 Galaxy cargo transport in 1965. This project required GE to develop a more efficient type of turbofan engine. Existing turbofans used a jet engine to drive a large front-mounted fan blade, and nearly half the air drawn into the engine bypassed the combustion chamber and was channeled out the rear for additional thrust. For the C-5, GE developed the TF39 turbofan, which had a bypass ratio of eight to one and produced 41,100 pounds of thrust. The turbofan was not only more efficient than conventional turbojets, it was quieter and perfectly suited for subsonic flight. Furthermore, the GE TF39 turbofan engine had applications in the commercial market. However, Pratt & Whitney again beat GE to the important commercial contracts, supplying the 747 jumbo jetliner with its own turbofan engine, the JT9D, in 1969.
Nevertheless, GE’s commercial derivative of the TF39, the CF6, was chosen to power McDonnell Douglas’s DC-10 jumbo jet in 1971 as well as Airbus’s A-300 in 1974. GE finally had a basis for building a reputation within the commercial airline market. In 1975 Boeing offered the CF6 as an option for the 747. GE had formed a joint venture affiliate with the French engine manufacturer SNECMA the year before. The new company, called CFM International, was created to combine the strengths of each company in areas of engine technology. And as a multinational company, with manufacturing facilities in Evendale, Ohio, and Villaroche, France, it had a better chance of gaining sales in both the United States and Europe. The new company’s CFM56 engine was chosen to upgrade the DC-8 and military versions of the 707, and became the standard engine on Airbus’s A320.
In addition to supplying the fixed-wing aircraft industry, GE was a successful supplier of engines to the maritime and oil field equipment markets. Furthermore, the company excelled in developments in helicopter propulsion. GE built several turbo-shaft engines, including the T64, T700, and CT7, for such helicopters as the Boeing CH-46, Sikorsky UH-60, and McDonnell Douglas AH-64 Apache.
In the market for fighter jet engines, GE was chosen to develop an engine for the North American Rockwell B-l bomber. Its F101, however, was cancelled in 1977, along with the B-l, after the Carter administration expressed concern over the waning utility of the strategic bomber.
In the late 1970s, GE got another chance to overtake Pratt & Whitney when that company’s F100 engine repeatedly failed qualification tests. After winning a place on McDonnell Douglas’s F-15 in 1970, the F100 fell further and further behind schedule, and, in 1979, GE was asked to provide an alternative. GE combined aspects of the F101 with another model called the F404—developed for the F-18 and the Stealth Fighter—to produce the F110. While Pratt & Whitney was busy fixing its F100, the GE F110 gradually overtook the fighter market. The F110 gained a place on the F-14, F-15, and F-16 and eventually won 75 percent of the FlOO’s market.
Moreover, when the Reagan administration put the B-l bomber back on order in 1981, the F1O1 was implemented. The first of 100 B-ls became operational in 1985. A second engine, the Fl 18, was chosen for the B-2 Stealth Bomber, still under development at the time.
Having laid the foundation for GE’s ascension in the aircraft engine market, Gerhard Neumann retired in 1977. He was succeeded by Fred McFee, who served for three years as head of the group and was replaced by Brian Rowe, a Briton who came to GE from DeHavilland in 1957.
In an effort to win market leadership from Pratt & Whitney, Rowe instituted a four-part plan that emphasized technology, modernizing facilities, customer service, and international operations. Rowe’s plan for the engine division served as a model for GE as a whole, whose new chairman Jack Welch called for a wider transformation of the company. Focusing on eliminating waste and raising profitability, he declared that any GE division not first or second in its market would be spun off.
The efforts to improve products and processes at GE was of great benefit to the aircraft engine group. The success of the CF6, the Fl 10, and the company’s partnership with SNECMA posed a serious threat to Pratt & Whitney. Although second in its market, GE consistently registered higher sales growth than its competitor, and had a more complete line of engines in production. Pratt & Whitney had grown complacent during its 15-year reign with the JT8D and JT9D, and its excellent relationship with aircraft manufacturers, airline companies, and the government deteriorated. In 1986 GE overtook Pratt & Whitney in sales, and despite Pratt & Whitney’s concerted efforts to win back the customers it had lost, it was unable to wrest its former position back from GE.
GE also benefitted from the rapid expansion in defense spending during the Reagan administration and growth in the commercial airline market. Defense spending was scaled back in 1989, however, and serious losses in the airline industry resulted in the cancellation of aircraft orders. Furthermore, Pratt & Whitney developed two new engines, the PW2000 and PW4000, aimed at winning customers over from GE’s CF6 and CFM56. When Boeing introduced its new 757, it chose Pratt & Whitney engines.
Nevertheless, GE continued to lead the market. In 1987 the company formed a second partnership with Garrett called the CFE Company, which developed the CFE738 turbofan for the medium jet market. Later, the CFM56 was chosen to power a new “stretch” version of Boeing’s 737.
During this period airline companies began to press for the development of a more efficient propjet. GE and Pratt & Whitney built jet engines whose turbines drove two rear-mounted counter-rotating propellers. While slightly slower than conventional engines, this “propfan” was twice as efficient as turbo-fans. Boeing and McDonnell Douglas began developing two new twin-propfan designs, the 7J7 and MD-91. After two years, miserable profitability among airline companies and plummeting fuel prices eliminated the demand for propfans. GE continued work on this revolutionary engine, but with very low priority.
In 1987 the General Electric Company launched a new corporate identity program to coincide with its ongoing reorganization. As a result, the Aircraft Engine Business Group received a new name, GE Aircraft Engines. The newly renamed group marked a milestone in marine propulsion that year, when the U.S.S. Leyte Gulf became the 100th Navy cruiser to enter service, powered by an LM2500, the marine derivative of the TF39/CF6. In fact, LM2500 engines were common power plants on a series of marine vessels, including destroyers, aircraft carriers, and frigates, as well as hydrofoils and off-shore oil platforms.
The company’s work force peaked in 1989, with 42,000 employed at GE Aircraft Engines. However, with the slowdown in military and commercial sales, the division cut its employment to 30,000 in 1993. Nevertheless, GE Aircraft Engines continued to dominate its numerous markets. In response to the government’s request for an Advanced Tactical Fighter, GE developed a new F120 engine that was to be tested against Pratt & Whitney’s Fl 19. The winning design was expected to be worth more than $1 billion in sales. In the early 1990s, Boeing and McDonnell Douglas began work on new super twinjets, for which GE Aircraft Engines began developing a turbofan called the GE90. Rated for 75,000 to 95,000 pounds of thrust, the engine was slated to become available in 1994. Furthermore, the company’s CF6 was developed for a variety of applications in commercial aircraft.
Biddle, Wayne, Barons of the Sky, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.
General Electric, Propulsion, Cincinnati: GE Aircraft Engines, 1991.
General Electric, Eight Decades of Progress, Cincinnati: General Electric Company, 1990.
“GE’s Aircraft-Engine Unit to Cut 3,900 Jobs This Year,” New York Times, February 27, 1993, p. 35.
Mattera, Philip, Inside U.S. Business: A Concise Encyclopedia of Leading Industries, Homewood, Illinois: Dow Jones-Irwin, 1987.
"GE Aircraft Engines." International Directory of Company Histories. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/books/politics-and-business-magazines/ge-aircraft-engines
"GE Aircraft Engines." International Directory of Company Histories. . Retrieved January 21, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/books/politics-and-business-magazines/ge-aircraft-engines
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