Among GE’s many firsts has been production of the first U.S. jet engine, the world’s largest jet engine and the first composite jet engine blade. But what good’s an airplane without someone to fly it? Pilots are the first to put an engine through its paces aloft and the ones with the skill to get from one point to another. Since April 26 was World Pilots’ Day, we take a look at some of the innovative and groundbreaking pilots and gear GE helped develop for the profession. We also talked to those who just love to get off the ground.
Pilots in World War I had a problem: Their propeller planes were losing up to half their horsepower as they went high into the atmosphere. It fell to GE engineer Sanford Moss to solve the riddle. He designed and tested the first successful engine turbosupercharger on the 14,000-foot summit of Colorado’s Pikes Peak in 1918 and continued refining the design at GE’s Lynn, Massachusetts, plant into the late 1930s. Famed pilot John A. Macready would notch one of his many firsts by pushing a Le Pere biplane outfitted with Moss’ turbocharged GE Liberty engine up to 33,113 feet and later 38,704 feet, both record altitudes at the time.
The Amazing Copper Man
Flying at such high altitudes brought with it another problem — bitter cold that could freeze a pilot’s skin to metal. Enter Copper Man. To spare volunteers the extreme discomfort of testing flight suits, GE created a 5-foot-10.5-inch dummy whose copper skin allowed registering temperature readings from 15 areas on the body. Copper Man successfully vetted an electrical suit that kept real pilots warm in World War II at minus-60 degrees Fahrenheit and comfortable up into the minus 70s. Copper Man’s achievement lives on in the form of electric blankets, a product GE refocused the technology toward after the war.
The Right Stuff
The modern mystique of pilots was probably cemented by “The Right Stuff,” a book and film chronicling the test pilots who became the first astronauts. Among the generations of pilots inspired by the real-life figures portrayed is Jon Ohman, GE’s chief test pilot who helms GE’s sole testbed, a Boeing 747-400. Ohman joined GE after a career in the Navy flying F-18s in combat zones and testing fighter jets for the service in Maryland. “To do things in the air that have never been done before, to be on the cutting edge of aircraft, systems and engine development, is exciting,” Ohman says. With GE he’s been able to follow further in the footsteps of his groundbreaking hero Chuck Yeager by making his own aviation first: Ohman piloted the GE testbed through the first flight of the GE9X, the world’s largest jet engine.
Up the Ladder
Not every GE pilot comes from the military — some rise from the factory floor. Kenny Glasgow started on the night shift at GE’s Strother Field, Kansas, facility drilling holes into concrete to secure machinery. He fell in love with aviation as he came up through the ranks, working on jet engines and holding a leadership position on GE’s contribution to the B-2 stealth bomber. With his savings, Glasgow bought a two-seat Cessna and started flying his family on weekend jaunts. After learning the ins and outs of maintaining a plane from her father, Kenny’s daughter, Kathryn, joined GE and has worked her way up to heading Apache and Blackhawk repair teams. And, like her father, she flies in her spare time.
Remarkably, women still comprise just 7% of all pilots, according to FAA data, even though women have been pioneers in flight from its earliest days. That’s one of the reasons GE Women’s Network continues to support the expansion of opportunities for women in aviation. Two of Australia’s first female military pilots detailed the challenge and thrill of breaking the gender barrier that was the rule Down Under until 1987. Deborah Hicks (now Jeppesen) grew up flying like her brothers. Her brothers would go on to pilot Harriers and F-18s for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) — she didn’t even consider signing up until the gender rule was changed. Robyn Williams (now Clay-Williams) opted to join the RAAF after being denied pilot training there because of her gender. Her plan: wait for her moment to get in the door. Both women were right. In 1988, the pair were the first women to graduate the RAAF’s grueling 14-month pilot training program, where half of all students wash out. They broke the barrier for other women and set the stage for the RAAF later lifting the prohibition on women flying combat. “We learned to try to meet the challenges and try to break down the barriers, and eventually they opened those roles up,” Jeppesen says.
Amelia Earhart often said “the lure of flying is the lure of beauty.” GE Aviation’s Brad Mottier knows the feeling. He relaxes from his job leading the division’s general and business aviation businesses by hopping into his Aviat Husky A-1 two-seater. (Last year, he also acquired a Cessna Caravan.) Sometimes he flies to backcountry Wyoming to fish, other times he makes his way from Cincinnati up to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for the world’s greatest airshow, the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. “Flying gives you freedom and perspective,” Mottier says. “There’s a sense of accomplishment from being a pilot that’s not readily available in many other earthbound activities. When you’re a pilot you are in many ways not bound by decisions that someone has made for you.”
Spirit of Innovation
Innovation isn’t something that’s mandated from above — it comes from individuals, and is something pilots seem particularly adept at generating. GE Aviation engineer Jeff Beam is one of GE’s many private aviators whose love of flying extends beyond 9-to-5. Beam flies an experimental Hatz biplane, a designation meaning the plane was hand built by a person, rather than a company. He also owns a Wheeler Express four-seater he’ll take on longer flights and undertook building a Piper Cub in his garage. The best part of flying is the chance to be aloft and see the sights at a leisurely pace, Beam says. “Flying is the quickest way to get where you need to go, if you have all day.”