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Mother of Invention: Sixty Years Ago, Pat Leary Helped Build GE’s First Supersonic Jet Engine

May 14, 2012
The week before Mother’s Day, Mark Leary called his mom, Patricia. Mark, who works on GE’s new GEnx engines, has been an engineer at GE Aviation for almost 30 years. Six decades ago, Patricia, who is 83 and the mother of six, helped develop GE’s first jet engines. She still keeps tabs on them. “I look at the pictures of the engines today and they don’t look like anything the engines then,” Patricia said. “I’m sure some of [your] engines are still flying across the country,” said her son.
Patricia joined GE as an engineering assistant in 1949. At the time, there were just 4,000 female engineers in the entire country, and no more than a handful at GE’s aviation unit, then based outside of Boston in Lynn, Massachusetts. “They were looking for people to hire for the Lynn plant,” Patricia said. She had a fresh degree in mathematics from Emmanuel College and started in a “calculating pool,” crunching engine test data with a slide rule and a couple of “really fancy” calculators. “I liked the idea that math was being used to produce something,” Patricia said.

Her boss in Lynn was Gerhard Neumann, a jet propulsion legend and innovator. She borrowed books and took GE classes in aerodynamics and gas turbine theory. But she also kept math close and enrolled for an advanced degree at Boston University. “This was well before the string theory,” she laughed. “Complex variables and the Kutta-Joukowski theorem were about as high as we ever got.” The theorem just happens to be the corner stone of aerodynamics.

The new skills came handy quickly. Neumann just started working on GE’s first supersonic jet engine, the J79. The key part of the engine that permitted speeds as high as Mach 2, twice the speed of sound, was a compressor that modulated the amount of air coming inside the engine. “It’s ridiculous that I should remember this, but I was assigned to write a report on the annular shroud, a second ring placed around the middle of the compressor blades to eliminate turbulence,” Patricia said. “We now call it mid-span shroud,” Mark jumped in.

She also analyzed data from compressor tests. The tests did not always go smoothly. “At one point the research compressor was cantilevered from the back wall of a test cell,” she recalled. “We ran it beyond its strength, it came off the wall and chewed up the floor.”

In 1949, GE started moving the aviation unit to Evendale, Ohio. The plant grew from 1,200 to 12,000 employees in just a couple of years. When Patricia first arrived in the summer of 1952, everything was still in flux. “They ran a bus directly from the downtown hotels to the plant,” she said. “So many people were transferring.”

One of them was her husband, Art, a fellow young Bostonian who worked for GE in logistics. They married, and in 1955 Patricia left jet engines for motherhood. “We were a nuclear family, just my husband, myself and the baby, with no relatives nearby,” Patricia said.

Art spent 37 years with GE, and Mark’s older brother also worked for the company. The J79 went to serve on a number on fighter planes like the F-4 Phantom. GE estimates that more than 1,300 J79 engines are still in service, and many are projected to continue through 2020.

Just before they hung up, Patricia asked Mark how long he’s been at GE. “Since 1983,” Mark answered.

“God bless you,” she said. “Time gets by.”

imageSlide Rule Sister: Patricia started out in a “calculating pool,” analyzing engine test data with a slide rule. “There were no computers then,” she said. “Just a couple of really fancy calculators.” imagePatricia’s bosses Gerhard Neumann and Neil Burgess led the J79 development. imagePatricia’s son Mark Leary stands in front of a J79 engine at GE’s learning center in Evendale.