Riding the cultural wave for more diversity, General Electric’s aviation division set about recruiting more Black engineers in the 1970s. One of the stops on their recruitment tour was Columbus, Indiana, where they were plucking engineers from Cummins Diesel.
One of those engineers was Greg Talley.
Talley had been at Cummins for several years working in accelerated testing. He loved it, but Cummins didn’t have a spot for his wife, Gwen. He thought maybe GE might have a slot for the both of them.
“It was interesting,” Talley recalls of that first meeting. “The entire GE recruitment team was African American when they came looking for me in Columbus, Indiana. And I was pumped. It was the first time I’d seen that.
“In any case, they offered my wife a job before they offered me one,” he says, laughing. “But they came around on me.”
Indeed, GE did. That was 1976 and the beginning of Talley’s four-decade career at GE Aviation. Gwen would spend 18 years as a logistics specialist for military programs before leaving GE.
Over those 40-years, Talley, a retired captain in the Army Reserves, would touch myriad engine programs, move from slide rules to laptops, from Lynn, Massachusetts to Great Britain to Cincinnati, and above all, embrace becoming an advocate for himself and his teams.
GE Aviation’s First African-American Recipient of the Young Engineer Award
Last month when nine young engineers were honored at GE’s annual Engineering Recognition Day, they’d likely never heard of Greg Talley. But in 1978, Talley was the first African American to receive the Young Engineer Award.
Reserved for those who make pioneering contributions both in engineering and leadership, in addition to demonstrating exemplary technical achievement, Talley’s first big engineering project at GE was on the J85 combustor and afterburner team.
Known as GE’s “Little Tough Guy,” the J85 was the first small turbojet to operate with an afterburner and is still in operation today.
Talley, who lives just outside of Cincinnati in West Chester, Ohio, created a stacked ring afterburner liner that was easier to assemble and easier to manufacture, leading to his Young Engineer Award.
“I didn’t think one way or another about being the first African American to receive the award,” Talley says. “All I know is that when I was up there on that stage with three or four other people receiving the award, it was just exciting to me.”
Talley, who self-nominated himself for the award, did so after considering advice from his human resources manager.
“I had a young African-American woman as my human resources manager and she told me, ‘Don’t wait around for somebody to do something for you. Do something for yourself.’ So that’s why I did it. And I really appreciated that advice.”
A Tumultuous Time
The son of a Navy Chief Petty Officer Shipfitter, the family moved around a lot along on the east coast when Talley was young. In school he was always one of one or two Black students. Given that most of his classmates were fellow “Navy brats,” as he says, he didn’t face any racial problems as a young Black student. It wasn’t until he was older that his experiences as an African-American man began to change.
He clearly remembers seeing “Whites only” and “For coloreds only” signs while travelling through the South, and witnessing a Klan rally in Indiana. And recalls walking through tear gas during his undergrad at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University when it shut down due to student protests after Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.
“I didn’t even know when I graduated from high school in 1965 that I had just gotten the right to vote,” he says. “It was a tumultuous time for me. I remember my reserve unit in Indiana had some pretty racist guys in it, but on the career front, I came to GE at a time when there was a huge influx of Black engineers. That African American recruiting team was out there getting busy,” he says.
There were about 12 other Black engineers recruited with Talley. Though Talley didn’t experience any overt or covert racism, he was once pulled aside by his African American manager and told that some of his contemporaries made more money than him. The manager then brought his salary up in line with his colleagues.
“It was very nice of him to do so, and he also recognized my value to the company,” Talley said. “Because it’s not always about pay. It’s a lot about recognition, and I just wanted to be recognized for what I had to offer the General Electric company, and I felt I had a lot to offer.”
A Lot to Offer
And offer he did. Over his four-decades at GE, Talley worked on the J85, the T700, aeroderivative engines, the experimental GE27 that later became the GE38 and the massive GE90.
When he was in England leading the GE UK Office of Technology, he received a call from Brian Rowe, president of GE Aircraft Engines from 1979 to 1993, and the mastermind behind the GE90 concept.
Rowe called Talley and asked him to purchase him a cricket bat. Because it was off-season for cricket, Talley hunted all over the city, eventually finding one and sending it to Rowe in the U.S. Turns out, Rowe, a native Briton and avid cricket fan, was using it as a demonstration for his U.S. colleagues to talk about laminated objects, specifically the strength GE90 fan blades would derive from layers of laminated composite.
Talley even remembers the test cell where the first GE90 fan blades were tested.
“It was a vacuum cell in Rugby, England,” he says. “A 13-foot diameter test cell where we’d spin it up and blow [the blade] up to see what the reaction would be.”
Which is one of things Talley loves most about engineering: The opportunity to engineer and then destroy something to better understand its design and thereby prevent potential failures.
By the time Talley retired in 2014, most of the other Black engineers in his recruit cohort had left. Talley watched as they moved beyond GE to other opportunities, but he stayed. He felt the opportunities at GE were far more plentiful.
“I learned early in life that the grass is not always greener on the other side,” he says. “As a matter of fact, the grass is never greener. You have to make your own opportunities, and I felt GE was full of all kinds of opportunities.”
That proved true while working on his favorite project at GE, the GE38 compressor rotor assembly. The project was what Talley calls “womb to tomb,” and he still talks about it with great joy, recalling details like it was yesterday.
It was for the Bell V-22 Osprey, a contract Rolls Royce ultimately won. But that doesn’t diminish his love for the project or the inspiration he gained from it.
That was back in the day when engineers used stacks and stacks of IBM cards they submitted at night and waited until the next morning for the results.
“The first thing I ever designed at GE I designed with a slide rule,” he says. “That just goes to show you how far along we’ve come since then.”
When asked if it was night and day compared to now, Talley laughs.
“Night and day? No! It was more like Jurassic Period to today,” he says.
Advice to Young Engineers
His advice to young engineers? That’s easy, he says.
1. Learn to sell yourself and what you’ve accomplished. He recalls the most talented engineer he ever worked with struggling to communicate effectively. He had great ideas and designs, but they didn’t go anywhere because he couldn’t promote them.
2. Learn to write. Engineering school will teach you classic engineering, calculations and mechanical design, he says. But it often doesn’t teach writing. If young engineers want to move up, sell their ideas, develop great performance reviews and create presentations for leadership, they must be able to write.
Like all aerospace engineers, Talley has a favorite engine — his is the T700. The story dates back to his days in the Army reserves, where he spent 14 years in the US Army Reserves Corps of Engineers.
He vividly remembers watching a group of technicians remove a T700 from a helicopter in the field, put it down onto a pair of logs to hold it and swap out a module of the engine.
“Then they put it back on and flew out. It was just amazing,” he says. “That really made me appreciate the T700 and those small, modular engines that are highly maintainable.” Ease of maintenance and modular designs are calling cards for many of GE’s military products.
Though retired from GE, Talley still works closely with the company. After consulting for a few years, he’s now a full-time contractor for a GE supplier. And it suits him just fine.
“I can’t escape GE, and GE can’t escape me,” he says.