As a 10-year-old, Pam Boehm sometimes sat in on her older sister’s engineering classes at the University of Notre Dame. Not the usual activity for a kid, but the experience introduced her to a discipline that would shape her life. “It’s not that I really had any idea what was happening in the classes, but the math was always exciting,” she says. After her father died unexpectedly, her grandfather stepped in as another big influence. Much of the rest of her childhood was spent following her “Mr. Fix-It” around as he diagnosed and repaired everything from the refrigerator to the suspension on his 1965 Ford Fairlane.
In the years that followed, she eagerly learned math and engineering theory in school as she headed for a career in mechanical engineering. Boehm initially thought that the engines she worked on would run closer to the ground. “I wanted to work on cars, because that’s how I was brought up with my grandpa,” she says.
In her hometown of Cincinnati, though, aviation is king. So Boehm’s gaze inevitably turned skyward. Today she is one of the world’s leading experts on controlling jet engine vibration in her role as chief consulting engineer of commercial dynamics at GE Aerospace. Earlier this year, she was honored with GE’s Career Technical Achievement award, a distinction that recognizes an employee’s technical expertise, leadership strength, commitment to innovation, and dedication to the advancement of their field. “It’s exciting. It’s humbling. It’s just a very exhilarating time,” she says.
Boehm joined GE Aerospace in the TF39 Systems team as a co-op just before graduating from the University of Cincinnati with degrees in mechanical engineering. Becoming an expert in jet vibrations was serendipitous. Early on in her job, she recalls, when an engine in the field had vibration issues, the manpower wasn’t immediately available to make a model, and her boss remembered that he had a new hire who could help. “I kind of stumbled on my passion. I was in the right place at the right time,” she says.
In a previous co-op job, she had specialized in accelerometers and oscilloscopes. “It was vibrations, but I didn’t realize it at the time,” she says. Reducing vibrations in an engine is hugely important to its durability. She had entered a field that converts arcane knowledge into practical technological improvements that are critical to the future of flight.
In the early 1990s, she joined the team designing the GE90 base engine, which powers Boeing 777s. The GE90 was conceived of as a revolutionary machine. With its high-thrust output, fuel efficiency, reliability, and innovative features, it fulfilled its promise to continue GE Aerospace’s role as a world leader in advanced jet engine technology.
“It took four and a half to five years to go from having this engine exist as just some drawings on a piece of paper to an actual engine on a test stand waiting to be run for the first time,” says Boehm. “We changed the fundamental architecture of the engine.”
As groundbreaking as the GE90 base was, the next iteration, the GE90-115B, presented the kinds of challenges that it seems Boehm was born to solve. One of her team’s specialties is how to manage the unbalanced force generated by an engine’s fan blades. That’s especially critical for the -115B, where that unbalanced force is 50% greater than that of the base 90. Put simply, more powerful engines produce greater vibrations, and greater vibrations increase the probability that something may go wrong.
Working on the -115B, the first engine to run with a load reduction device (LRD) specifically adapted to reduce vibrations in aircraft engines during large unbalance events, was one of the highlights of her career. “That innovation has been in nearly every large engine we have produced since then,” she says. “In order to receive certification from the FAA, we have to test it by actually blowing off the fan blade.” Of this thrilling moment she says, “You’re on the edge of your seat. We worked so hard to make sure that the engine safely shuts down and that everything performs as it has been designed to perform, and the test is over in less than a second.” She adds: “It is a second that feels like it takes an hour!”
Boehm is eager to have the next generation of GE Aerospace engineers benefit from her experiences, which explains why she is active in the company’s Women in Technology organization and advises some 25 people. “I want to make sure they don’t repeat the mistakes I made. The opportunities were there. But sometimes I was afraid because I underestimated what I could do,” she says. Her own mentor is an invaluable resource. “It’s absolutely fantastic to have someone to be able to talk to about things that come up, partially because you’re a woman in engineering and partially because you’re just in engineering.”
As for what she’s working on now, Boehm and her team are applying themselves to another revolutionary advancement. “We are at the inception of the next new architecture,” she says. Major changes to engine architecture are a once-in-a-generation event. The parallels between now and 30 years ago are striking. “We’re moving bearings around again. We’re changing frames. We’re innovating new technologies on how the motors are going to run and what cycles they’re working through,” she says, adding, “It’s just incredible.”