Commentary: 100 years of excellence

This month, more than 50,000 GE Aviation employees at 70-plus global sites are celebrating our 100th anniversary of reimagining flight. Nowhere is that history more deeply ingrained than in Lynn.

From the very start, the talented men and women of Lynn have been at the forefront of GE’s pursuit of innovation in the aviation industry. The complex mix of manufacturing, assembly, engineering and testing has been integral to the lasting relationship that GE has built with the U.S. Armed Forces. 

The journey began in 1903, the same year the Wright Brothers first took flight near Kitty Hawk, when an eccentric engineer named Sanford Moss reported for work in the steam turbine department at the massive River Works plant. 

Moss went on to lead a top-secret U.S. Army project to radically boost aircraft performance by harnessing hot exhaust gas to spin a turbine that “supercharged” the air going into the engine. 

On July 12, 1919, U.S. Army Major Rudolph “Shorty” Schroeder climbed into the open cockpit of a Packard LePere biplane powered by a Liberty engine equipped with GE’s turbo supercharger. He quickly climbed to 16,000 feet, where the engine performed as if it were at sea level. Within weeks he was flying at 30,000 feet and more, all thanks to Moss’ innovation. 

GE Aviation was born — and with it a legacy of taking aircraft higher, farther and faster was firmly established.

Over the next two decades, Moss and his team refined their devices, and in so doing, created the building blocks for jet engines. Skilled assemblers produced thousands of turbo superchargers that powered many WWII Allied aircraft. And as a new era dawned, their experience made Lynn the logical choice for another top-secret U.S. Army program: development of America’s first jet engine.

In 1941, GE assembled an elite group of engineers, the “Hush-Hush Boys,” to oversee redevelopment of an engine originally designed in England by Sir Frank Whittle. On April 18, 1942, the Hush-Hush boys ran the GE I-A jet engine for the first time, and by the end of the year, America’s first jet, the Bell XP-59A, made its first flight with a pair of GE I-As each delivering 1,250 pounds of thrust.

The development sparked a stunning era of innovation in Lynn. A flurry of government development programs led to a succession of new engines — each more powerful and efficient than the last. Developed in 1946, the J47 engine produced four times the thrust of the I-A and was commissioned on more than a dozen U.S. aircraft, from fighters to bombers. It would go on to become the world’s most produced engine with more than 35,000 assembled. 

Just 10 years after the I-A, another special team built an engine capable of flying at more than twice the speed of sound. The J79 ultimately would deliver nearly 18,000 pounds of thrust. More than 17,000 J79s would be built, and its CJ805 variant marked GE’s entry into the commercial jet business.

Concurrently, another Lynn group began a groundbreaking effort to develop a “baby gas turbine” the size of a car engine but six to eight times as powerful. The resulting T58 weighed just 250 pounds and produced 1,050 shaft horsepower. The T58 is the root of Lynn’s proud heritage of powering most U.S. military helicopters, from the Army Blackhawk to the Marine Corps’ massive CH-53K.

Today, River Works remains the center of the company’s military business, supporting the T700, T408, F414, F404 and F110 programs, plus commercial CF34 jet engines. The plant’s work also serves to power the local community in a significant way, supporting an additional 5,400 jobs in Essex County with a total of $450 million in gross economic value added to the county’s GDP. What’s more, GE employees contribute nearly 6,000 hours annually in community volunteer projects. 

As we celebrate 100 years of GE Aviation, Lynn’s more than 2,600 employees continue to carry on a proud tradition of innovation. With all the opportunities and challenges ahead, what will the next 100 years bring? 

Matt O’Connell is the GE-Lynn Area executive.

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