Here is a flight through GE aviation’s history, a business that took off in 1918 when Sanford Moss, a GE engineer and one of the brightest minds in the steam turbine business at that time, proved that a supercharged Liberty V-12 aircraft engine performed much better at high altitudes than the standard version.
Moss was the first person to figure out how to use hot exhaust gas to power a turbine. He thought that the principle could apply to airplanes when the U.S. Army’s fledgling aeronautical division wanted to make its airplanes fly higher without losing power, during the First World War.
Along with his team, he designed a device called turbosupercharger that used exhaust fumes to power a small turbine that increased the air pressure in the cylinders and gave the engine more oomph, especially at high altitudes where the air is thinner.
In 1918, he took the device to Pikes Peak in Colorado, elev. 14,000 ft., and proved the capabilities of the supercharged Liberty V-12 aircraft engine. The government was pleased and GE got the job. Moss shrunk his Pikes Peak turbosupercharger to fit on a plane.
First aircraft turbosupercharger: In 1921, a LePere biplane equipped with Moss’ turbosupercharger set a world altitude record, reaching 40,800 ft. In 1937, Howard Hughes used the device on his record-breaking transcontinental flight from Newark, N.J., to Los Angeles lasting 7 hours, 28 minutes and 25 seconds. Later versions of the technology served on B-17, B-24 and B-29 bombers during World War II.
First U.S. Jet Engine: In the fall of 1941, a top secret group of GE engineers used Sir Frank Whittle’s engine design to build America’s first jet engine. The prototype flew in 1942, and the jet engine entered service in 1944, powering the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, the first jet fighter in the U.S. Air Force’s arsenal.
First U.S. Commercial Jet Engine: In 1947, GE’s J47 engine became the first jet engine certified for commercial aviation in the U.S. GE made more than 35,000 of them. They found a number of applications. The Spirit of America jet car used one, and a pair of them powered what is still the world’s fastest jet-propelled train.
Early supersonic engines: In 1948, GE hired German aviation pioneer Gerhard Neumann, who developed a revolutionary design called variable stator. It allowed pilots to turn the vanes on the engine’s stator, change the pressure inside and make planes routinely fly faster than the speed of sound. When GE started testing the first jet engine with Neumann’s variable stator, engineers thought that their instruments were malfunctioning because of the amount of power it produced.
In the 1960s, the GE-powered XB-70 Valkyrie aircraft was flying in excess of Mach 3, three times the speed of sound.
Nuclear-powered jet engine: In 1954, GE even put a nuclear-powered jet engine on a test stand in Arco, Idaho. It accumulated more than 100 trouble-free running hours before the project was shelved. In service, it would use nuclear heat from a reactor aboard the plane. A plane with these engines could theoretically stay in the air for days and weeks. Although the U.S. Air Force did modify a B-36 Peacemaker bomber to carry a nuclear reactor, it never used the engines.
First high-bypass turbofan engine: In the 1960s, GE engineers started working on a new powerful jet engine that could lift heavy loads across long distances, but also made planes more fuel efficient. They came up with the TF39 engine, which clocked in at a record 40,000 pounds of thrust. Although it was developed for the military, later versions of the engine launched the CF-6 family, have powered Boeing 747 planes, DC-10, Lockheed L1011, and Airbus A-300 passenger jets. CF-6 engines are still serving on the U.S. President’s Air Force One.
First unducted turbofan: Following the oil crisis in the 1970s, GE and NASA developed a funny looking engine design called ‘unducted turbofan’. The engine, named GE36, was a cross between a jet and a propeller engine. The fuel efficient machine used blades made from light and tough carbon fiber composites for the first time. GE is still the only company in the jet engine business using these materials on engine fans. In 1988, a GE36-powered MD-80 passenger jet flew from the U.S. to the Farnborough Air Show in England.
The world’s largest and most powerful engine: Although the unducted turbofan didn’t catch on, the carbon fiber blade technology allowed GE engineers to build new a line of massive high-bypass turbofans, including the GE90-115B, which is the world’s most powerful jet engine with 115,000 pounds of thrust, the GEnx, and the GE9X, the world’s largest engine with a fan that’s 11 feet in diameter, an engine still in development).
First engines with 3-D printed parts and new ceramic materials: The LEAP jet engine is the first jet engine with 3-D printer fuel nozzles and components made from strong ceramic matrix composites (CMCs), which are much lighter than even high-grade alloys. The LEAP is 15 percent more fuel efficient than comparable GE engines, and was developed by CFM International, a joint venture between GE Aviation and France’s Snecma (Safran).
Today there are more than 30,000 aircraft parts, avionics and engines in service, from tuboprops powering crop dusters and commuter planes to the world’s largest and most powerful jet engine used by Boeing’s 777 planes.
Excerpts from GE Reports. Image courtesy GE Reports.