As the sun was setting over the southern California desert in December 1955, a small group of engineers, technicians and project managers nervously squinted down runway 4 at Edwards Air Force Base. At the end of the runway was a Douglas XF4D Skyray, which was serving as a General Electric test plane.

The cause for the nervousness? Packed tight into that modified Skyray was GE’s much-anticipated J79 turbojet engine. Slated to push military jets twice the speed of sound, the J79 was making its first run as the sole powerplant of an aircraft that day.

GE’s chief test pilot Roy Pryor spent 40 problem-free minutes in the air before landing the Skyray safely back at the desert air base. From the cockpit, he offered a thumbs-up to the J79 test team, signaling a successful first flight. As Pryor hopped out of the cockpit to evaluate the J79’s performance, he exclaimed: “It felt like I had a tiger by the tail!”

In that moment, Pryor simultaneously created the J79 program’s new slogan and elevated the hotrod engine to nearly folkloric status before it had even gone into full-rate production.

A patch of the Tiger J79.

Above: J79 pilots were often given this “Tiger by the Tail” jacket patch. There are variations of the patch that indicate a pilot’s flight hours. Top: Solon poses in front of a J79 on display at GE Aviation’s Learning Center in Evendale, Ohio.

What followed was an incredible run for the J79. Variants of the engine were in production for two decades, with nearly 17,000 built by the time GE ended production in 1979. J79-powered aircraft— including the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, Convair B-58 Hustler, North American RA-5 Vigilante, IAI F-21A Kfir, and the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II—went on to set 44 speed, altitude, and time-to-climb records. Derivatives of the J79 found success outside the military as well, powering several commercial aircraft and industrial projects.

The end of J79 production did not spell the end of the J79, though.

J79 Assembly shot.

Production employees haul a fully-assembled J79 to a test cell, June 1954.

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MEET MR. J79

Amazingly enough, J79s still power active-duty military aircraft for several nations—more than 60 years after Roy Pryor’s famous flight. And as long as they’re still out there, former GE Aviation maintainability specialist and longtime J79 consultant Mike Solon will be on the job.

Solon has over half-a-century’s worth of experience working with GE engines, primarily the J79. He is, in all likelihood, the world’s foremost expert on J79 maintenance and operation—the go-to person for any and all J79 operational questions and issues. He says it’s earned him a reputation, as well as a nickname: Mr. J79.

And just to make sure everyone knows how seriously he takes his J79 work, the license plates of his black GMC Sierra pickup truck read “J79ENG.”

“People have hobbies,” Solon said. “They love sports. They love cars. Well, I love GE J79s. When I go to sleep at night, that’s what I dream about… I’ve got to keep it running, and I’ve got to keep it running correctly. That’s my hobby. That’s what I love to do.”

 

Solon says he’s been stopped before by people curious about his license plate.

 

HOW IT BEGAN

Passions—daresay obsessions—like Solon’s don’t appear out of thin air. Growing up in Philadelphia tinkering with the motor on a ’52 Chevy, Solon was no stranger to the intricacies of engines when he entered the U.S. Air Force in 1967. The results of his Air Force aptitude test suggested that his talents might lie in the engine maintenance field. And with Vietnam War in full swing, his acumen was quickly put to good use.

Solon, an airman basic at the time, in his full U.S. Air Force uniform, 1967.

After completing his basic training, Solon was sent to Royal Air Force Alconbury base in England to attend Field Training Detachment (FTD) school. That’s where his love affair with the J79 would begin.

“The more I worked with J79s, the more I was blown away by the quality,” Solon said. “That’s really what made me love GE engines. I could tell that they had a high standard and that they put quality before everything else.”

Solon told the story of his wing commander paying a visit to the maintenance shop and asking the new recruits what their goals were after their Air Force career.

“He went down the line, and when he got to me, I said ‘Well, sir, I want to retire from the Air Force. Then, I want to work for GE, and I want to work for the J79 program.’”

The wing commander replied, “I think that’s a great goal, son. But I’m afraid the J79 will be long-gone by the time you’ve retired from the Air Force.”

Having spent his days disassembling J79s down to nuts and bolts, then rebuilding them again, he already could tell that this engine would be in it for the long haul.

Solon didn’t say it to his wing commander, but he thought it: “Sir, you don’t know the J79 like I know the J79.”

Telling the story more than 50 years later, he grinned from ear to ear. “I was right,” Solon said.

Solon spent 17 of his 22 years in the U.S. Air Force at RAF Alconbury and RAF Lakenheath. He was also stationed at North Carolina’s Seymour Johnson Air Force Base before his last stop at Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas, supervising the B-52H engine flight line specialists. Nearby was a Texas Reserve unit flying F-4E Phantoms, which kept Solon close to J79s.

A LOYALTY TO GE

Solon was hired by GE Aviation in 1989 to work at its long-time headquarters just outside Cincinnati, Ohio. He worked as a maintainability specialist for the YF120 and GE90 programs for four years before receiving devastating news: Battered by ongoing defense cuts and a rapid decline in commercial engine orders, GE Aviation was forced to lay off thousands of employees worldwide, with Solon among them.

“It was crushing to get that news,” Solon said. “That was the job I had always wanted. But I couldn’t let it be the end of my GE story.”

Following the layoff, Solon drove buses for a local school district, purposely staying in Cincinnati in hopes of receiving a call from GE. But it never came.

Years passed. Then, one day in 1998, Solon attended a job fair in hopes of proving his expertise to GE representatives. He didn’t find them, but he did meet a local GE contractor that was specifically looking for a J79 expert to assist the remaining customers of the more than 40-year-old engine program.

This illustration was featured in a J79 brochure given to potential customers.

“I got to talking with the recruiter, and he asked to see my resumé,” Solon recalled. “He looked at it and said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ He couldn’t believe all the experience I had with J79s. I had an interview with the GE J79 team that same day.”

Solon’s interview with the J79 team went well, but he felt he needed to solidify that he was the right person for the job. So, during the interview, he turned the tables and began quizzing the J79 team.

“That’s not how you’re supposed to do a job interview,” he chuckled. “But I wanted them to know how seriously I wanted that job. I started asking really detailed operational questions, and they were stumped. One of them said to the manager, ‘Boss, we can’t let this guy walk out the door without a job.’ That interview was on a Thursday. I started the job on Monday.”

Solon points out similarities between the J47, shown here on display at GE Aviation’s Learning Center, and the J79.

A COMMITMENT TO THE CUSTOMER

In the years since he was hired as a J79 consultant, Solon’s knowledge has only deepened and his love for the product only grown. A problem-solver by nature, it’s been the perfect match. And while he isn’t able to crawl down air intakes like he used to, he is often able to guide others—sometimes without even looking at the engine.

“I’ve got it memorized inside and out,” he said.

Solon has answered thousands of emails from customers around the world, earning their trust with timely solutions and outstanding customer service. He keeps that responsibility top-of-mind every day.

“You don’t give customers makeshift, halfway fixes for their problems. You don’t kick the can down the road for another day. You solve their problems. That’s what you owe your customers,” he explained. “GE is quality, and you have to uphold that reputation.”

That attitude has been recognized. In his two decades as a consultant, Solon has won the respect of customers by making their issues his top priority. He’s earned countless customer service awards for his relentless commitment and problem solving.

A small sample of the awards Solon has earned from international customers throughout the years.

Just how good is he? Solon says he was once able to diagnose what was believed to be an engine problem just by listening to an audio clip the customer played on a cell phone during a J79 conference. By the end of the day, Solon had diagnosed the problem, detailed the solution, and received all the necessary checks from the engineering and safety teams. He delivered his answer the next morning at the conference.

At the bottom of his letter containing the solution, Solon wrote, “I have officially ungrounded all five of your aircraft.”

MR. J79 TODAY

Solon says his wife of 49 years, Diana, is constantly reminding him to dial back the J79 talk. “Anytime we’re about to meet up with people for dinner or anything, she’ll look at me and say ‘Do not mention J79. We’re going to be here for hours if you start talking J79!’”

He laughs off Diana’s gentle scolding, but she does have a point. A father of three and grandfather of four, Solon speaks about J79s as if they’re part of the family. And thanks to the “J79ENG” license plate, Solon says he’s been stopped many times by people with a connection to the engine. Some worked on the J79 production line at GE Aviation, some say the J79 is their favorite engine, and some even say they flew J79-powered aircraft. Whatever the connection, Solon is sure to impart his J79 wisdom—and a story or two.

He’s also used his J79 expertise as a way of giving back. Hawaii’s Joint POW/MIA Personnel Accounting Command (JPAC), a U.S. Department of Defense joint task force that attempts to account for missing Americans from all past wars and conflicts, looks to Solon to identify J79 engine parts found at decades-old crash sites. According to Solon, his work is a piece of the puzzle that can allow JPAC to make positive identifications of missing American aviators who served in Vietnam.

As of now, Solon has no plans to slow down. He has publicly vowed to his customers that he won’t retire until the last J79-powered aircraft has flown its final mission. By his estimates, that could be as far away as 2030, at which point Solon will be well into his 80s.

That vow is the perfect encapsulation of Solon’s career. It’s an intense passion, a focus on quickly solving problems, and an unrelenting commitment to the customer that define his inspirational journey dating back to his earliest days as an airman basic in the U.S. Air Force.

One thing’s for certain: For most of his life, Mike Solon has had a tiger by the tail.