Dr. Tom Cooper, who died in late March, in Utah, had an enormous impact on GE Aviation’s success, both as Assistant Secretary to the Air Force (U.S.) and as a 21-year leader of the company’s Washington, D.C. office. A 2012 inductee to the GE Aviation Propulsion Hall of Fame, Dr. Cooper was interviewed for this profile just days before his untimely passing.
For two decades, from 1987 to 2008, Tom Cooper was GE Aviation’s lead mover and shaker at the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. A former Assistant Secretary of the Air Force (USAF), Congressional staffer, and professor of engineering, Cooper was well connected and respected with an engaging manner and warm sense of humor.
The combination made him ideally suited to help government officials appreciate the tremendous technological and business challenges associated with fielding high-performance military and commercial engines like the GE F110 and F414 fighter jet engines and mammoth GE90 for the Boeing 777.
“Tom had a ‘simple elegance’ as a communicator which allowed him to frame complicated technology and business issues,” recalls GE Vice Chairman and Aviation CEO David Joyce. “And he was always the calmest guy in the room, a steady hand on the throttle and yoke.”
With government officials, Cooper never highlighted technical problems faced by GE competitors. “I had the highest regard for our competitors, principally Pratt & Whitney (P&W) and Rolls-Royce (RR),” said Cooper, a 2012 inductee into the GE Aviation Propulsion Hall of Fame. “All three of us have brought unbelievable products to the market place. I had been around long enough to know that over time we all run into problems developing and fielding these new engines.”
He experienced this firsthand as USAF Assistant Secretary. As sole engine provider for F-14s, F-15s, and F-16 fighter jets, P&W faced significant technical and support issues. By the early 1980s, a frustrated Department of Defense brought in GE to develop a competing engine—the F110—for an annual procurement that came to be known within and without the walls of the Pentagon as “The Great Engine War.”
Over the next decade, GE’s F110, with a hot section based on the F101 engine for the B-1 bomber, became the lead engine for USAF and Allied F-16 fighters. By investing in two competing engines, the government obtained better-performing powerplants with improved reliability and supportability at reduced costs. In short, the Great Engine War was a huge success.
During Operation Desert Storm in early 1991, GE and its engine partners powered 80 percent of the U.S. and Allied aircraft involved in one of the largest military air campaigns in world history. “GE was flying high,” Cooper said, “but that can be a precarious position to be in. Your customer can perceive your confidence as being arrogance and your competitors are gunning to take you down.”
Sure enough, trouble struck.
In April 1991, the Pentagon selected P&W to power the USAF’s Advanced Tactical Fighter, later designated the F-22. Worse for GE, this decision positioned P&W for the higher-volume, multi-service Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), designated the F-35. Within five years, P&W secured a sole-source engine position on the F-35 without a formal engine competition.
GE’s back was against the wall. Drawing from the Great Engine War lessons, Cooper gained strong bi-partisan support for a competing engine program from such key U.S. senators as John Warner (R-VA), Ted Kennedy (D-MA), and Ted Stevens (R-AK), along with Rep. Jack Murtha (D-PA). Cooper’s argument was straightforward: “Given the size of the JSF program, is it better to have a sole supplier of engines or an ongoing, enduring competition to keep all three major engine suppliers—Pratt, GE, and Rolls-Royce—in the game. Why not another ‘Great Engine War’?”
The argument gained traction. In 1996, the Pentagon awarded a relatively modest $7 million contract to a new fighter engine team formed by GE and Allison Engines, owned by Rolls-Royce. This funded a study to determine the feasibility of a competing JSF engine. “From tiny acorns do mighty oak trees grow,” said Cooper.
Of course, the work had just begun. Year after year, GE and RR fought for funding through the labyrinth of the Pentagon, various Congressional subcommittees, committees, and budget conferences, all the way to the Oval Office. In the process, both companies made great progress in defining an engine.
The journey’s high point occurred in 2005 when the GE/RR team received a $2.4 billion, multi-year development contract. The team was on its way to an enduring competition with its F136 engine against the P&W F135 engine. Or so it seemed.
By 2009, the F136 program was in trouble. Support waned as JSF production forecasts declined. The political winds were shifting and U.S. military budgets were being challenged. The benefits of The Great Engine War receded further in the rearview mirror. Two years later, the F136 program was cancelled after a 15-year effort.
Cooper had retired by then but he remembered seeing President Obama announce defense program terminations on television, including the engine competition. “It was a bitter pill to swallow,” he recalled. “So much effort had gone into the program and it was nearing completion. I remember thinking that hopefully the fight had been worth it and some of the effort could be used in future programs.”
He was right. GE clearly benefitted from the long struggle. The F136 program would improve skillsets for a generation of GE engineers advancing propulsion technologies, many of which found their way onto commercial jet engines.
“We built areas of expertise for engineers aligned with the unique characteristics of combat engines,” said GE Vice President Jean Lydon-Rodgers, who headed GE Aviation’s military division for several years. Indeed, the JSF program helped GE later to run fighter engines at record operating temperatures and make great advances in materials science, such as ceramic matrix composites. “Unique skills were preserved, such as the [fighter jet] afterburner,” Lydon-Rodgers pointed out, “which is an art form as much as a science when you consider that lighting the afterburner is akin to lighting a match in a hurricane.”
Many GE engineers involved in the competing JSF engine are now involved in the company’s adaptive-cycle military engine, a long-term development program. GE received a $1 billion contract in 2016 and a follow-on $437 million contract in 2018 to advance the adaptive-cycle engine technology, positioning the company for future generation fighter jets.
Even in retirement Cooper had wonderful memories of his GE years. “Although I probably didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, GE was such a unique place to be, surrounded by so many world-class people delivering state of the art products around the globe,” he said. “Looking back, I now realize what a magical experience it was and how fortunate I was to be a small part of it.”