GE Aviation’s longest running commercial engine program was already living a second life as a cargo powerhouse before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, with airliners scrambling for capacity to meet cargo demand due to COVID-19’s decimating impact on air traffic, the same CF6 engine family that helped secure GE Aviation’s place as a world-leading civil aviation supplier has found a critical new role to play. Steady growth in CF6-powered aircraft departures shows it is the powerplant of choice on freighters bringing needed medical supplies, food and goods to destinations around the world.

Considered GE Aviation’s first successful commercial engine program, the CF6 entered service in 1971 with the McDonnell Douglas DC-10, a widebody airliner. Eventually, the CF6 was certified to fly on 13 different plane applications. Over the years, operators have converted aircraft that previously flew passengers into dedicated freight carriers—think e-commerce trends bringing packages to your doorstep—including the DC-10, Airbus A300 series, Boeing 767 and Boeing 747. New dedicated freighters such as the 767 are still being built today with CF6 engines.

As of June, global daily departures of airplanes with CF6 engines for passenger and cargo remained significantly lower than before social distancing restrictions were implemented. But when looking at flight volumes for cargo carriers alone, CF6-powered departures have grown 22 percent from the end of January to the beginning of June, according to GE analysis of FlightAware data.

“We are the pre-eminent engine on freight,” said Scott Brensike, GE’s general manager of the CF6 engine program. “Our team is proud of the part we play in humanitarian flights and to keep industrial supply chains humming.”

Top: One of Kalitta Air’s CF6-powered Boeing 747 cargo jets in action. “I think the CF6 is a workhorse,” said Kraig Stepp, manager of Kalitta’s powerplant division. Above: GE Aviation assembly mechanics Walter Wolfe (left) and Chris Francis (right) at work in CF6 engine assembly production in Evendale, Ohio. Photo credits: Kalitta Air (top), GE Aviation (above)

 

In fact, various CF6 engine types collectively power 73 percent of the world’s widebody planes dedicated to hauling cargo. And when it comes to the Boeing 767 family, CF6-80C engines power 97 percent of the 767 fleet.

Kalitta Air, a Michigan-based family-owned cargo operator, has seen increased demand for its freight services worldwide since the onset of the virus earlier this year. The company is running at full capacity to meet the need, said Kraig Stepp, who manages Kalitta’s powerplant division. Kalitta operates cargo flights on behalf of leading shipping and delivery companies, and early on in the crisis supported repatriation missions. In turn, the growing utilization of Kalitta’s aircraft has led to an uptick in its own aircraft maintenance volumes to service its fleet of 3 B777 freighters, 24 B747-400 freighters, and 9 B767-300 freighters, Stepp said.

“The CF6 plays a vital role in operations, not only during this time, since day one and continuing in the future,” said Stepp, who has more than 30 years’ experience in aviation, starting as a mechanic.

Half of Kalitta’s 747s and all of its 767 fleet is powered by CF6 engines. Kalitta’s 777 planes also have GE90 engines installed. When the maintenance team overhauls and assembles one of its engines or provides third-party maintenance work for other aviation companies, Stepp expects the engine to spend three to four years on wing.

“I think the CF6 is a workhorse,” he said. “It’s been a reliable platform for the company as well. I think that’s probably the biggest reason it’s a good fit for our missions—the reliability and you can depend on it.”

An advantage to such a long-running program is GE’s continued investment in the CF6 for engine parts and services. New CF6-80C engines continue to be produced. By 2025, the CF6-80C2 model alone is expected to have been manufactured for what’s believed to be a record-breaking 40 years for GE.

Assembly mechanic Ben Rogers working on a CF6 engine at GE Aviation in Evendale, Ohio.

 

And how’s this for staying power: the oldest model of the CF6 engine still in service, the CF6-6D, began operations more than 48 years ago. The CF6-6 engine with the most takeoffs and landings has reached more than 37,800 cycles and 94,000 hours with more than 45 years in operation.

With cargo demand up and commercial passenger travel suffering, GE Aviation still maintains three overhaul shops actively servicing CF6 engines to meet needs for product support and Services to cargo operators. Cargo customers should contact their GE Customer Program Managers and Sales Directors to secure overhaul slots and materials as early as possible for planned Services.