It’s pitch black. Winds are raging. Rain is crashing against the windshield. Thunder is roaring through the night sky. Hours away from the nearest carrier and in an extremely hostile environment, two GE414-powered F18 fighters approach their target. Suddenly, the squadron leader’s forward looking infrared stops working and he quickly gives the lead over to his wingman, the youngest pilot in his squadron. “Jonny, you got this?” Calm and resolute, Jonny answers, “Yeah, I’ve got this Skipper.”
Fast forward 15 years and Jon Ohman, or Jonny as he was known back then, is now GE Aviation’s Chief Test Pilot. He will also be the first person in the world to fly a GE9X-powered aircraft.
Growing up in Santa Barbara, California, Jon’s dad would often bring him and his brother to see planes take off at the local airport. That is where Jon first began to ascertain his love for flight. But it wasn’t until 1986 that Jon, a 13-year old boy at the time, really discovered his passion for flying.
“I was watching the movie Top Gun with some friends,” Jon recalls. “That’s when I looked up and said – that is exactly what I want to do. I want to fly fighters off of aircraft carriers.”
And that is exactly what Jon did. He began taking flying lessons at the age of 16 and received his private pilot’s license at 17, all while attending San Marcos High School in Santa Barbara, California. He still remembers the parting advice of his instructor after earning his wings. “Jon, stop what you’re doing. Take a deep breath. Look around. You’re flying an airplane. How cool is that?”
After graduating high school, Jon was accepted to the naval academy where he built the foundation of his future as a pilot in the United States Marine Corps. During his time in the Marine Corps, Jon served as an F-18 Hornet pilot in several combat missions. He then transitioned into flight testing for the F-18 and F-35 programs. Since joining GE, Jon has captained test campaigns for LEAP-1A, LEAP-1B and GEnx-1B engine programs.
Despite having flown more than 3,500 flight hours in 34 different aircraft, it’s flying the world’s largest engine later this year that has Jon most excited. “It’s an Aviation first. It’s going to be flying people all over the world for generations to come. To be part of such a talented team of professionals putting that engine into the air for the very first time is beyond rewarding as a pilot.”
A blend of evolutionary and revolutionary designs, GE9X will be the most fuel-efficient jet engine GE has ever produced on a per-pounds-of-thrust basis. It will also be the largest. That is why Jon and the team prepares with the same diligence that he used in his Marine Corps combat training.
“We approach flight tests in the same way that I approached a combat mission. We go over every tiny detail and make sure we are prepared appropriately. That is one thing I learned early on before that first combat mission as a wingman in those dire conditions. You have to be very disciplined in both preparation and execution so that the test is safe, effective and efficient.”
In order to ensure a successful GE9X flight test campaign, Jon and the Flight Test Operations engineering team have been working diligently for over 18 months designing, reviewing and adapting plans. For flight preparation, they use the 747-400 flight simulator at the NASA Ames Research Center. It’s there where the team engages in life-like mission rehearsal and maneuver development.
Jon may be piloting the GE9X’s first flight, but he is only one piece of an incredible program developing the world’s next great engine. From the hardware and systems design teams, to the development assembly and instrumentation teams, to the ground test and evaluation personnel at Peebles, OH and Evendale, OH, this has truly been a team sport. The team has also been working closely with Boeing’s 777x Chief Test Pilot, who will be joining Jon on-board during the flight test along with GE Engineering Test Pilot Eric Achen and Flight Test Engineer Edwin Sharp.
Testing will finish up later this year from GE’s Flight Test Operations site in Victorville, California. Jon will then climb into the cockpit of GE’s test bed, fire up the GE9X engines and prepare for takeoff. Once in the air, Jon will pilot the plane for its first test. A test that he began preparing for over 20 years ago, when he first took flight into the skies above California in that tiny Piper Cherokee Warrior with his flight instructor.
“I am just going to take it all in. It will be like that first time in the air all over again. Through all of the intense focus, I have to make sure I tell myself to stop what I am doing. Take a deep breath. Look around. As a team, we are going to be flying the GE9X for the first time. How cool is that?”
It is very cool, Jon. Very cool indeed.
As GE bids farewell to the original flying testbed, hear from the pilots who flew her for more than 25 years: