This season marks important anniversaries in the amazing life of GE Aviation giant Gerhard Neumann, whose business and technology innovations still cast a wonderful shadow over our business.
Affectionately known as “Herman the German,” Gerhard was born 100 years ago this past October, and he passed away 20 years ago this past November at age 80.
Born in Germany, he studied auto mechanics and engineering. But he had been enthralled by aviation ever since Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight over the Atlantic Ocean in 1927.
In the 1930s, he studied at one of Germany’s oldest technical colleges. A Jew by birth, he left Nazi Germany in the late 1930s and eventually (after a brief detainment in China as an “enemy alien” due to Germany’s invasion of Europe), joined the U.S. volunteer flying group in China nicknamed “The Flying Tigers.”
His heroics as an ace mechanic with the “Flying Tigers” led to his being awarded U.S. citizenship in 1946 through a special act of U.S. Congress.
In 1948, he joined GE in Lynn, Massachusetts – then the center of America’s jet engine universe – and soon ran Lynn’s compressor test facility.
He noticed that compressor stationary stator vanes limited efficiency at various operating modes and contributed to stalls. He proposed a design to allow stator vanes to change angles during flight. Ultimately, GE received several patents citing Neumann as inventor. In 1952, Gerhard led a team that incorporated variable stators into GE’s lightweight “Mach 2 engine,” later called the J79.
The storied J79 became the dominant large fighter turbojet engine of the 1950s and 1960s for the F-4 Phantom, F-104 Starfighter, and other applications.
Gerhard led GE’s aviation business from 1961 to 1978 during GE’s dramatic rise as both a leading commercial and military jet engine producer. When he took over the reins, Pratt & Whitney dominated the large commercial turbojet world. He knew something had to be done.
Known for his passionate “tent gatherings” with employees, Gerhard in the early 1960s initiated the dual-rotor GE1 Demonstrator Engine program, involving GE’s best engineering minds, which fed technologies into our TF39 engine, the world’s first high bypass turbofan; and the rugged F101 engine core that drove a generation of GE military and commercial engines from the F101 (B-1 bomber) and F110 (F-16, F-14, F-15) to the F118 (B2, U2) and the ubiquitous CFM56 engine family (737, A320, KC-135R, and more).
And along the way, Gerhard teamed with his close friend and Snecma (now called Safran) president Rene Ravaud to fight for the 1974 creation of CFM International, the 50/50 joint company of GE and Safran which today produces the CFM56 and LEAP jet engines. For that bold effort, Gerhard received the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest civilian honor.
Building upon GE’s revolutionary TF39 turbofan (for the C-5 Galaxy), GE in the late 1960s launched the highly reliable and fuel efficient CF6 commercial family that established a leading presence on the best-selling widebody aircraft from Airbus, Boeing, and McDonnell Douglas. Gerhard’s right-hand man on the CF6 program was another future GE legend, Brian Rowe.
Gerhard stepped down as the GE Aviation leader in 1978 due to health reasons. By then, GE’s CFM56 and CF6 engines were at the forefront of airline propulsion, and Lynn’s T700, TF34, and F404 engines – all launched on his watch – were among the most popular military engines. And the F110 fighter jet engine was just around the corner, ready to claim the coveted F-16.
Until his death in 1997, Gerhard remained passionate about the industry he helped to propel. With a charmed German accent, his common question to young GE employees was, “Vas you ever on Neumann Vay?” — referencing the “Neumann Way” entrance to GE Aviation’s headquarters in Evendale, Ohio.
It could have just as easily been called “He Showed Us the Way.”