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Big Deal: The Air Force’s Largest Transport Craft, Powered By GE Engines, Taxis Into The Spotlight

There’s a reason the C-5M Super Galaxy plane looks like a whale with wings: The latest version of a military transport jet first developed 50 years ago by Lockheed, this behemoth can carry two battle tanks across the Pacific Ocean in a matter of hours on a single tank of jet fuel. In fact, it’s the largest transport aircraft in the U.S. Air Force’s entire fleet.

So maybe it was inevitable that it would draw the attention of producers at the new TV show “Richard Hammond’s BIG,” in which British journalist Hammond explores the world’s largest structures and machines. The very second episode of the nine-part series, which just debuted in the U.S. on the Science Channel, focuses squarely on the Super Galaxy. And that brought Hammond straight to Steve Scavo, an engineer at GE Aviation, the GE unit that makes the engines that take this mammoth into the skies. Scavo’s is a very big job indeed: He’s the manager for the United States Air Force and Lockheed C-5M Super Galaxy program.

When TV came calling, Scavo was ready — if a bit shy, he admitted later. “I was nervous during the actual filming,” said Scavo, who’s worked for GE for 30 years. “There were no dry runs.” A crew spent a day touring and filming at the Ohio facility, though, and things went off without a hitch: “Richard Hammond made me feel very comfortable during the interview process,” Scavo said. “He’s a pretty energetic guy and his ability to instantly ‘peg his enthusiasm meter’ when it was time to start filming was impressive.” (Read more about Scavo’s time in the limelight here.)

The C-5M Super Galaxy can carry two battle tanks across the Pacific Ocean in a matter of hours on a single tank of jet fuel. In fact, it’s the largest transport aircraft in the U.S. Air Force’s entire fleet. Top and above images credit: Rob Butler for GE Reports.

The first Galaxy, the C-5, was developed by Lockheed Martin in the late 1960s to ferry equipment and troops to Asia. In 2018 — almost exactly 50 years after the plane made its maiden voyage — Lockheed delivered the last upgraded version, the C-5M Super Galaxy, to the Air Force.

Although the Galaxy is a military transport plane, it helped launch GE into the commercial aviation business. The jet’s original TF39 engines used a design called a high-bypass turbofan, which placed a big fan up front to generate thrust in combination with a jet. GE had to test the engine on a B-52 bomber — the closest plane in size to the gigantic C-5.

Today virtually every midsize and large commercial plane uses the same engine design. But back then, it was revolutionary. The high-bypass turbofan design allowed GE engineers to boost the engines’ thrust to 40,000 pounds each — the C-5 has four of them — and cut fuel burn by a quarter compared with other engines in use at the time. By comparison, GE’s supersonic J79 engines, which the company developed for the Phantom a decade before, had just 17,800 pounds of thrust.

GE quickly saw the commercial potential of the turbofan engine and built a passenger version called the CF6. Launched in 1971, it’s one of the most common jet engines in the world today, powering all makes of planes, from Boeing 747 jumbos — like the president’s Air Force One — to Airbus long-haul jets and Beluga cargo lifters. GE has delivered more than 7,000 of the engines to 250 airlines in 87 countries. The newest versions are expected to fly until 2040.

GE has delivered more than 7,000 CF6 engines to 250 airlines in 87 countries. The newest versions are expected to fly until 2040. Image credit: Rob Butler for GE Reports.

In fact, the upgraded version of the C-5, the Super Galaxy, is now also using the same propulsion. In 2006, the Air Force decided to retrofit 52 of the planes with the engines and more than 70 other technology upgrades. The new military version of the CF6 engine alone, called GE F138, provides 50,000 pounds of thrust — a fifth more than the TF39, the original turbofan engine — and allows the plane to meet new noise-reduction requirements. Other benefits include a shorter takeoff, a 58 percent improvement in climb rate and “greatly enhanced fuel efficiency,” which means less reliance on air tankers, according to Lockheed.

But the GE turbofan’s evolution didn’t stop with the CF6. Engineers built on their knowledge to design the GE90, the world’s most powerful engine, which boasts thrusts of up to 127,900 pounds; the GEnx for the Boeing Dreamliner and 747-8 jumbo; and the GE9X, the world’s largest engine, which was developed for Boeing’s next-generation 777X plane. The plane made its maiden flight in January.

New materials such as carbon fiber composites and ceramic matrix composites, plus new technologies like 3D printing, reduced the weight of the engines by hundreds of pounds and further improved fuel efficiency. The latest engines like the GE9X and the LEAP engine, developed by CFM International — a 50-50 joint venture between GE and France’s Safran Aircraft Engines — use all three manufacturing advancements. The LEAP engine is the fastest-selling engine in aviation history with orders and commitments totaling more than 18,700.

 

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