GE Aviation is celebrating its 100th year in business. All year, we’ll be taking a look back at some of the engines and technology featured in our advertisements and the stories behind them. To read more stories about GE’s 100 years in Aviation, visit our celebration page.
Metallurgical Memo from General Electric
Did you know GE created a collection superalloys that helped change aerospace? The most notable of these alloys was René 41. It has exceptionally high strength and is able to withstand temperatures of up to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. Due to this versatility, it quickly found its way into the hot section of jet engines, missile components, bolting and springs. The most notable application of René 41 was its use as an outer skin of the spacecrafts from the Mercury Project, the United States’ first human space flight program. It was an early highlight of the Space Race and was the first mission conducted by NASA. There were six manned flights and 13 unmanned flights that were successful in part by Rene 41.
GE-powered F-86 has no match in air circuit
Piston-powered aircraft dominated the air racing circuit for more than two decades between the 1920s and early 1940s. When the Jet Age arrived and jet propulsion was introduced to air races such as the Thompson Trophy and Bendix Race, there was such a discrepancy in speed that new divisions had to be established to distinguish between piston-engine races vs. jet-powered races. In 1949, a piston-powered Goodyear F2G Corsair won the Thompson Trophy, a ten-mile course with 50-foot pylons marking the turns that was considered “a horse race in the air.” Pilot Cook Cleland hit a speed of 397 mph. When jet power was introduced in 1951, a North American F-86, powered by GE’s J47 engine, hit a speed of 635 mph on a closed course – 238 mph faster than the Corsair! The Bendix Race, a free-for-all dash across the country from California to Cleveland, introduced a “Jet” class in 1946. A Lockheed P-80 shooting star won the inaugural jet race. By 1951, the F-86 established itself as the premier best-in-class jet racer, averaging 25 mph faster than the previous jet record. The F-86 was undefeated in both the Thompson and Bendix Trophy races in 1951 and 1953. Both events were cancelled in 1952 due to the Korean War.
J47 sets many firsts, becomes world’s most-produced jet engine
The J47 is one of GE Aviation’s most iconic turbojets. It truly was an engine of firsts. – It sets a world speed record of 670 mph in a F-86 Sabre – It’s the first jet engine with an anti-icing system – It’s the first US jet engine to use an electronically-controlled afterburner – It’s the first axial-flow jet engine certified for commercial use as the TG-190 by the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Administration (now FAA) The J47 powered several different military aircraft during its run, including the F-86 Sabre, Boeing B-47 Stratojet, FJ-2 Fury and B-36 Peacemaker. The J-47 also had numerous off-label applications. These included the fastest jet-propelled train, heavy-duty snowblowers for railroads and the Spirit of America Jet Car. Over the course of its lifetime, more than 35,000 engines were built during its 10-year run, making it the most produced jet engine in aviation history. Production ceased in 1956, but it was used by the military until its retirement in 1978.
GE equips WWII aircraft with parts from nose to tail
During World War II, GE’s premiere aviation product remained the turbosupercharger. This technology gave larger aircraft such as the B-17 a distinct advantage for high-altitude precision bombing. By 1943, there were more than 100,000 GE turbosuperchargers equipped on military aircraft. However, GE also equipped bombers and fighters with aviation parts from nose to tail. From aircraft instruments, to trim tabs, to engine enclosures, GE manufactured parts from nose to tail. In this ad is the impressive list of aviation parts GE made.
GE Proclaims: The Jet Age is Here
Building a jet engine is one challenge. Telling the world what a jet engine is and how it works is another. General Electric took both duties in the early 1940s. GE’s J31 model was the first jet engine to be mass produced in the United States, powering the Bell P-59 Airacomet. Soon after its introduction in 1943, General Electric began a massive advertising campaign to let the world know the Jet Age is here. To the general public consumed with stories about airplanes with propellers and piston engines for nearly 40 years, GE had to start from the ground up to explain exactly what jet technology is. GE took out ads in newspapers, magazines and even used TV and radio to educate the world on jet technology.
1920s and 1930s
Up, up and a way: GE’s supercharger breakthrough
General Electric’s first breakthrough aviation product, the GE Supercharger, was innovation at its finest. It was designed to breathe life back into the engine with a greater supply of air at higher altitudes. Soon after its introduction in 1919, the race to fly as high as possible equipped with the GE supercharger was on. Altitudes records were broken almost weekly. By 1920, the GE supercharger enabled airplanes to fly more than 34,000 feet above sea level – over a mile higher than Mount Everest. By 1921, Lieutenant John Macready flew his GE-boosted Lepere biplane to 40,800 feet above McCook field in Dayton, Ohio. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_gkYasLH2o By 1930, more than 8,000 GE superchargers were in service. Although GE didn’t get a breakthrough contract for the Sanford Moss-designed supercharger (later the until the dawn of World War II with the B-17, its early success laid the foundation of GE Aviation as we know it today.
GE Turned Night Into Day for Early Aviators
The first recorded airplane night flights began as early as 1910. To say these flights were dangerous is an understatement. One of the first aviators to fly by dark was Charles K. Hamilton, nicknamed “Crazy Man of the Air.” Here’s an account of Hamilton’s first night flight from an Associated Press report in June 1910: “[Hamilton] boldly took his biplane into the air after darkness had fallen, flying for 18 minutes through inky space while 10,000 people at the [Nashville] fair grounds stood aghast at his daring … Hamilton thrilled the awestruck spectators by dipping in front of the grandstand until he almost touched the row of lights stretched across the track, then skimming along just above them … With a search light fixed under the seat of his biplane, Hamilton soared into the night again at 10:57 p.m., circling far out from the starting point at an altitude of about 600 feet, with the light giving the appearance of a meteor moving in zigzags and curves. The clouds had disappeared by this time and by the aid of the moon, spectators could keep in view a shadowy outline of the biplane. At 11:12, while some distance away, the motor blew a cylinder head, which struck the propeller, and the flight was suddenly terminated, the craft being brought lightly to earth in a marshy portion of the infield.” Said Hamilton after the flight, “My flight tonight will probably open up a new area in Aviation, as it will enable cross-country flights to be made during the night. It was a little difficult to see but with the aid of my searchlight I could get a general idea of the country below.” Within the next two decades, the demand for night flying grew as advancements in Aviation such as carburetor heaters, radio and instrument technology and full-service airports allowed aircraft to fly longer and further distances. The need for advanced lighting at airports became an issue for many pilots, including early airmail pilots that were flying all night. General Electric, the world’s leading light producer, was a natural fit to solve the Aviation industry’s lighting problem. GE established its leadership in the art of airport lighting soon after World War I. By 1930, GE’s products included:
- Beacon lights which guided pilots to airports. The beacon’s powerful beam was used to sweep the horizon six times every minute and could be visible from 60 miles on a clear night. These beacons came with an automatic lamp changer to replace a light in case it burned out.
- Floodlights to illuminate airport runways. These wide, fan-shaped beams were more powerful than 600 lamps ordinarily used in a home.
- Ceiling lights—a narrow, intense beam to measure the height of fog or clouds.
- Airport lights which helped night flying pilots identify where to land and any obstructions to the field with light color.
GE’s compass guided the Lindberghs all over the world
Make no mistake about it – GE’s turbosupercharger was its best-selling aviation product leading up to its work on the first jet engine. However, nearly two decades passed between GE’s public announcement of its first successful tubosupercharged flight (1919) and the big breakthrough contract from the Army Air Corps to install GE’s product in the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress (1937). In these lean years while Sanford Moss and his engineers continued to manufacture and improve the turbosupercharger, GE used its engineering prowess and technical strength to pursue business and breakthrough with other aviation-related products. One of these products was GE’s magneto compass — a simpler, more accurate upgrade from the widely-used earth inductor compass. The new compass, which was developed in the 1920s with collaboration between the Army laboratory at Wright Field and Dr. J.D. Tear of GE’s research lab, weighed only two pounds — one-fifth of the standard earth-indicator compass. According to Dr. Tear in 1929, it occurred to him that the earth’s magnetic field might be intensified or concentrated by means of some magnetic material. This consideration led him to use nickel-iron alloys, particularly Permalloy, which had the desired properties he needed. The GE compass guided Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh to a U.S. coast-to-coast speed record in 1930 in a Lockheed Sirius. Again, guided by GE’s compass, the Lindberghs used this plane in 1931 and 1933 to conduct survey flights around the world to determine where commercial air routes and airports might be located. Today, this aircraft can be found at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.