As their license plate proudly states, North Carolina was “First In Flight.” However, even before the Wright Brothers’ historic 852-foot flight in Kitty Hawk on Dec. 17, 1903, the first documented airplane in the United States was built in 1873 by Henry Gatling outside Murfreesboro.

In 1907, Levi Paul of Davis, North Carolina, became the first person to get a helicopter off the ground – all of four feet into the air! A year later in Kitty Hawk, Charles Furnas became the first passenger to fly in an aircraft, next to Wilbur Wright in the Wright’s Flyer III.

In 1913, Oxford’s Georgia “Tiny” Broadwick became the first woman to parachute from an airplane.

While the aviation pioneers of today aren’t donning pilot caps and goggles or flying around in tube and fabric airplanes, they are finding ways to continue to move the aviation industry forward. Case in point, Asheville, North Carolina.

Exactly 100 years after “Tiny’s” big jump, another GE Aviation broke ground on a $126-million, 170,000-square foot facility in Asheville to begin mass-producing Ceramic Matrix Composite (CMC) components for aircraft engines – the first facility of its kind in the world.

CMCs are a super material that is as tough as metals, but only one-third as heavy and can operate at 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit — 500 degrees higher than the most advanced alloys. When incorporated in today’s commercial engine, CMCs can save millions of dollars annually for airline fleets. A 1 percent reduction in fuel consumption can save more than $1 million a year for commercial air carriers. This next generation CMC material technology being produced by GE Aviation will improve fuel efficiency at 1 to 2 percent.

In 2014, a team of about 20 Asheville employees began shipping CMC parts. Just five years after breaking ground, CMC production at the site is thriving. Shroud production rates for the CFM LEAP program have more than tripled each year since the site opened. Today, these Asheville-produced shrouds have surpassed more than 1.5 million flight hours on the 800+ LEAP engines in commercial airline service.

The LEAP is the world’s best-selling jet engine with a current backlog of more than 15,300 engines — some which are assembled at GE Aviation’s Durham facility. In August, GE Aviation Asheville celebrated the delivery of its 25,000th LEAP engine shroud with some award-winning barbeque served up by GE Aviation Asheville employee Brad Hensley and distributed by the CMC leadership team.

“This site is truly unique to our industry and remains the only high-volume CMC components plant in the world,” said Ryan Huth, GE Aviation Asheville CMC Plant Leader. “We are successful because of the hard-working, dedicated men and women who bring a passionate, can-do attitude to work every day and our collaborative partnerships with the design and materials engineering teams. It has truly taken a village to reach this milestone.”

Asheville CMC Plant Leader Ryan Huth (front right) serves up barbecue with the GE Aviation CMC Leadership team and Asheville employees. (Photos by Ted Limbo)

Asheville begins delivery of GE9X CMC parts

Still, there’s more work on the Western Carolina horizon. In May, GE Aviation Asheville began delivering CMC components for the GE9X, the world’s largest commercial jet engine. With an 11-foot diameter, the GE9X can generate more than 100,000 pounds of thrust. By the end of 2018, GE Aviation Asheville will deliver five separate CMC parts for this engine, which is scheduled to enter service by the end of the decade on the Boeing 777X.

As the demand for CMCs has grown, so has the workforce at the site. In 2013, GE Aviation broke ground on the $126-million, 170,000-square foot Asheville CMC facility – just a short walk to its Rotating Parts plant. Around 340 employees were projected for the site five years ago. In March, GE Aviation Asheville announced an additional 131 employee, $105 million investment which could grow the workforce to approximately 555 employees.

“The high volume of hiring here will continue to increase through the end of 2020,” GE Aviation Asheville Senior Human Resource Manager Sarah Hall said. “There are various roles ranging from CMC Technicians to Ceramists, Engineers and Production Control. We have a self-directed workforce highly involved in the decision making of the site. Everyone contributes to the positive and motivating culture that we have.”

In just 10 years, GE Aviation has spent more than $1.5 billion to bring advanced CMC technology to market. Beyond GE’s Global Research Center in Niskayuna (NY), this investment includes four production facilities in Cincinnati, OH; Newark, DE; Huntsville, AL; and Toyama, Japan.