Forty years ago this month, CFM International landed its first CFM56 engine contract – a win that was secured with critical help from the first man on the Moon.

The order was taken just weeks before the fledgling joint company’s engine development program was to be shelved.

First publicly disclosed after his death in 2012, Neil Armstrong played a significant part in launching the CFM56-2 engine program as a corporate board member for United Airlines, a CFM launch customer.

More on that drama a little later.

After years of seemingly insuperable government hurdles, CFM International, the 50/50 joint company between GE and Safran Aircraft Engines (called Snecma at the time), was established in 1974.

Five frustrating years ensued as the partners struggled to launch its new CFM56-2 turbofan engine. Studies were conducted with Boeing on a 707 re-engining program, which even predated CFM’s formation. However, there were technical challenges in stretching the 707 fuselage with four new turbofan engines to make it a modern passenger jet. In Europe, CFM pursued studies with French aircraft manufacturer Dassault, including one concept jointly proposed with McDonnell Douglas. The projects stalled and an airline customer never materialized.

The CFM56-2 was first flight-tested in 1977 on the Sud Aviation Caravelle SE210, the same year U.S. President Jimmy Carter cancelled the GE F101-powered B-1 bomber program. With the CFM56-2 engine core derived from the F101 engine, some GE leaders worried that CFM would never be economically viable without a parallel military program.

By early 1979, patience within the parent companies was wearing thin after having collectively sunk more than $500 million into the unsold engine program.

That year, GE Corporate Chairman Reginald Jones called the lack of a CFM56 launch a “personal embarrassment.” In a terse conversation in the GE Corporate dining room in Fairfield, Connecticut, Jones ordered Gerhard Neumann, the recently retired head of GE Aviation who continued as a GE corporate officer, to make finding a CFM customer his top priority.

“I cannot possibly conceive my having to go to the French and tell them that we can’t find a home for our joint venture,” the passionate Neumann, an architect of CFM International, wrote to GE Vice Chairman Jack Parker in early 1979.

Chuck Chadwell, a future GE Aviation vice president, vividly recalled the Evendale mood within the CFM56 project at the time. “I was told to get ready to pack up all of the files and put them into storage,” he says. “We thought the whole CFM56 program was over.”

As luck would have it, around this time the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was pursuing more stringent noise regulations for the early commercial jetliners, such as the Douglas DC-8 and Boeing 707. This was good news for Snecma and GE since the CFM56 had been designed to run quieter than other similarly sized engines. Suddenly, the prospects brightened for the CFM56-2 turbofan.

“That was the key,” recalls Dick Smith, a retired GE Aviation executive and GE’s first CFM56-2 program leader. “When the FAA got serious about new noise regulations, our CFM engine was in a great place for a re-engining program.”

Neil Armstrong (left) finished his career as an Apollo astronaut and later headed the propulsion evaluation team as a board member for United Airlines.

Anticipated FAA action led to a proposed technical program, orchestrated by retired Douglas Aircraft president Jack McGowen, to re-engine a large fleet of DC-8 jetliners owned by U.S. operators United Air Lines, Flying Tiger Line and Delta Air Lines.

Freight carrier Flying Tiger Line preferred the more expensive CFM56-2 to a competing offer from Pratt & Whitney (P&W) for a re-fanned JT8D because of the engine’s fuel efficiency, lower noise and durability. United and Delta, however, were attracted to the JT8D’s commonality with their large P&W engine fleets. In the end, United, with the largest DC-8 fleet of the three operators, determined CFM’s fate.

Enter United board member Neil Armstrong, a 1955 graduate of Purdue University with a degree in aeronautical engineering. In 1970, he earned a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Southern California. In between earning those diplomas, he became one of the world’s most famous humans as a fearless NASA astronaut and the first man to step onto the surface of the Moon in 1969.

From 1971 to 1979, Armstrong was an engineering professor at the University of Cincinnati. He lived in Greater Cincinnati for the rest of his life, first on a farm near the small town of Lebanon, Ohio, and later, in the Cincinnati suburb of Indian Hill.

In 1979, Armstrong led United’s propulsion evaluation team considering the competing re-engining bids from CFM and P&W for its DC-8 fleet. When he arrived to GE Aviation’s Evendale headquarters for a CFM56-2 technical “deep dive,” Dick Smith saw more than an astronaut in action.

The FAA pursued more stringent noise regulations for the early commercial jetliners, such as the Douglas DC-8 (shown) and the Boeing 707.

“Most people don’t realize that Neil was a very good engineer,” said Smith, a longtime member of the GE Aviation Propulsion Hall of Fame. “He dived into the details and asked hard technical questions. He was particularly interested in the thrust reverser and the potential for deployment in flight. He wasn’t worried about it happening, but he wanted to understand the installation on the aircraft.”

In the end, United, Flying Tiger Line and Delta, which collectively owned the world’s largest fleet of four-engine DC-8s, agreed to replace the fleet’s original P&W JT3Ds with the CFM56-2 turbofan.

The first engine contract was signed by United to re-engine twenty-nine DC-8s, followed by thirteen for Delta and eighteen for Flying Tiger Line. The re-engined fleet was called the “DC-8 Super 70” series.

With CFM56-2 customers secured, CFM continued to work with Boeing on re-engining the Boeing 707. It resulted in a game-changing U.S. Air Force (USAF) KC-135 tanker (707 military variant) re-engining program with the CFM56-2 the following year. The CFM re-engining program on the tanker would continue for decades. Within six years, CFM56 engines also secured positions on the Boeing 737 “Classic” series and the Airbus A320.

Today, CFM International is the most successful producer of commercial jet engines for airlines in the history of aviation. And no one is more thrilled than Dick Smith, who lives with his wife, Ann, in Greater Cincinnati. Looking back on 1979 and Armstrong’s involvement, he added, “sometimes you need a little help along the way.”