“His first gift to me, not flowers or anything, but a little model plane. I thought, ‘that’s not the usual first gift to someone you’re trying to get a date with.’”
Corinne Blanton is 96 years old, living independently in Cincinnati, Ohio. She stands well under five feet tall, dresses neatly, and moves quickly around her modest home. Her memory is sharp, able to rattle off the names of her friends and family, significant years and events of her life, and what she’s read in the Cincinnati Enquirer recently. Family pictures and old aviation books occupy nearly every table and bookshelf in the house.
The model plane was an unconventional but fitting gift from a young man who was attending Purdue University with her in the early 1940s. A mechanical engineer, track athlete, and Purdue University’s 1943 billiards champion, John W. Blanton, Sr., went on to become Mrs. Blanton’s husband for 60 years until his passing in 2003.
“Aviation was really his heart. He was thoroughly, thoroughly involved in aviation from the time I knew him. It’s all he talked about, all he thought about,” Mrs. Blanton said. “The slide rule that he took to work everyday was never too far from his side.”
John W. Blanton, Sr., took that love of aviation and turned it into a 26-year career at GE Aviation, developing a reputation as a pioneer, an innovator, and a risk-taker. He managed several key advanced engine technology programs before retiring in 1982 as general manager for commercial advanced engines and commercial engine programs. As GE Aviation celebrates its 100th birthday this year, it’s impossible to understate the contributions Blanton Sr. made during his career to lift up the company to where it is today. If you asked those closest to him, though, you wouldn’t get that impression.
Now a retired physician and working medical school professor in Connecticut, Dr. John W. Blanton, Jr., described his father as characteristically quiet.
“My father was a very modest, humble man,” he said. “He preferred to lead by example. He never sought out the spotlight or extra attention.”
It’s no surprise, then, that he didn’t know much about the groundbreaking engine technology his father was completing as the highest-ranking African-American engineer at GE Aviation’s headquarters in Evendale, Ohio.
“I knew he worked on jet engines and remember getting to see the engines run in test cells during open houses,” Blanton Jr. said. “The people in the control room would even let you mess with the throttle a little bit back then. I never really knew specifics about his work or where he sat within the company, though.”
Simply put, John Blanton Sr.’s work was revolutionary, and it pushed the boundaries of jet engine capability throughout the Cold War.
Early in his GE career, the U.S. Air Force had challenged Blanton Sr. and his team to develop an engine unlike any ever produced. The Air Force wanted a 10-to-1 thrust-to-weight ratio that could propel an aircraft at Mach 3.5, faster than anything in the sky. At Mach 3.5, equivalent to roughly 2,600 miles per hour, an aircraft could make the trip from New York City to Los Angeles in just over one hour. More importantly for the Air Force, it was a speed that allowed its fighters and bombers to easily dispatch any Soviet challenges in the sky.
The X370, as the project would come to be known, went through its first tests in July 1961. It was the highest thrust-to-weight ratio turbojet in the world at the time. Although the X370 didn’t earn a contract for further development and production, Blanton Sr.’s team made its mark through the metalworking techniques it employed during the engine’s development. Processes like electro-chemical machining and laser drilling, along with new engine cooling techniques, were used by GE engineers for nearly three decades following the X370’s demonstrations.
Blanton Sr. was also instrumental in the design and development of a Direct Lift Demonstrator engine to be used on future vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft. Like the X370, the Direct Lift Demonstrator engine never went into production, but the materials, processes, and designs behind it were major leaps forward for GE Aviation and the aerospace industry as a whole. His contributions to the company earned him a spot in the GE Aviation Propulsion Hall of Fame in 1991.
A CIVIC LEADER
As impressive as Blanton Sr.’s 26-year career with GE Aviation was, perhaps more impressive was his track record in the Cincinnati community.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t a community that felt like home when the Blantons first arrived. The transition from Buffalo, New York, to Cincinnati in the mid-1950s took some time. The family had to adjust to an entirely new life after leaving behind a comfortable situation in Buffalo. Even worse, Mrs. Blanton said the family experienced racial discrimination in Cincinnati, particularly when trying to find housing.
“I didn’t like Cincinnati at all when we moved here,” she recalled. “For three years, we were living in a four-room apartment looking for the right house. We would find a house to look at, then heard all kinds of excuses about why we couldn’t see it. It was racial.”
Despite the obstacles facing them, the Blantons were eventually able to make Cincinnati their home and use their difficult experiences as a reason to champion equity and opportunity for marginalized groups in the community. “I really do think he felt a deep obligation to give back to his community,” Blanton Jr. said. “And he was grateful for the opportunity to work for a company that encouraged that type of behavior.”
To say Blanton Sr. “gave back” sells his accomplishments as a civic leader somewhat short. He led the charge to restore the Queen City Metro, Cincinnati’s bus system that’s still in operation today. He was appointed to the Ohio Governor’s Coordinating Council on Drug Abuse. He was on the board of the Cincinnati Zoo. He served as president of the Urban League of Greater Cincinnati. He helped run a chapter of the Boy Scouts. Even today, his impact is felt in Cincinnati. The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, for which Blanton served as president from 1973 to 1979, established the John W. Blanton Internship Program in his name in 2014, which seeks to develop leaders in public transportation.
Blanton Sr. didn’t seek out attention for his work in the community, despite having an active role in shaping it. Blanton Jr. said he couldn’t recall a time when his father was stopped on the street or treated like anything beyond ordinary for his community work. He did, however, command the respect of his friends and colleagues, enough so that both local Democrats and Republicans sought his support. Blanton fought for the opportunity of marginalized groups during the struggle for civil rights and used his commitment to public service to touch the lives of countless Cincinnatians.
A FATHER AND HUSBAND
Blanton Jr. recounted his father once taking him to watch a rocket engine test late at night from the gates of Bell Aircraft in Buffalo, where Blanton Sr. worked prior to GE Aviation.
“I remember hearing the countdown to ignition, then just a quiet hiss. I turned to him and asked, ‘That’s it?’ He held up his finger and said, ‘Just wait.’ Then, it looked just like what you see in the movies, a continuous explosion.”
Although he never felt pushed to pursue a career in aviation by his father, Blanton Jr.’s hobbies naturally gravitated toward the skies. He’s held a private pilot’s license for 55 years, and like his father, has built countless model aircraft. But their shared interest in flight ended on the tarmac.
“Dad only went flying with me once, and I had to ask him to go. For someone who had such a long career in aviation, he really didn’t seem too interested,” Blanton Jr. chuckled. “We took a short flight around Cincinnati, and I remember him just sitting quietly watching the instruments and looking out the window.”
Mrs. Blanton remembers her husband as carrying a quiet confidence and a straightforward attitude. “John was always thoughtful and practical, never one for fluff or fanfare. When he asked me to marry him, it was just, ‘Let’s get married. Will you marry me?’”
As a father, Mrs. Blanton described Blanton Sr. as involved but never one to coddle or for that matter restrict John Jr. when he wanted to pursue something. She said her husband still knew how to lay down the law when he needed to.
“I remember one time [Blanton Jr.] wanted to fly down to the Bahamas during medical school, and I said it was fine, but that he needed to call every night. He said, ‘Mom, do you know what that would cost?’ Then John grabbed the phone and said, ‘Call your mother every night.’ That was the end of the discussion.”
Blanton Jr. remembers the difficult conversation he had with his parents mid-way through his college career when he decided he wanted to attend medical school rather than pursue a graduate degree in engineering. “A tear rolled down Mom’s cheek, proud in the realization that her son was going to be a doctor. But Dad just sat there quietly, true to his nature,” he said. “He only asked that I continue to have a strong background in science. He never hovered over me, but he did have high expectations for my behavior and academics,” Blanton Jr. said. “That was his style, and I’m appreciative that he let me follow my own path.”
Blanton Jr. recently flew from Connecticut to visit his mother over the holidays in Cincinnati. Sorting through some old boxes in her home, he came across some artifacts from his father’s time at GE. Among the keepsakes were a few turbine blades — a crucial component of the jet engines his father built during his career. Blanton Jr. tucked them away in with his belongings before heading back to Connecticut, able to take his father to the skies one last time.