The year was 1941. World War II was raging in Europe and Nazi bombers over London were as common as rain. It was also when a group of GE engineers in Lynn, Massachusetts, received a secret present from His Majesty King George VI. Stacked inside several crates were parts of the first jet engine successfully built and flown by the Allies. The engineers’ job was to improve on the handmade machine, bring it to mass production and help England win the war.
There were more than a thousand people working on the project, but few knew what they were building. One of them was Joseph Sorota, who became part of the inner circle as employee No. 5. He might have been the last member of the team. “Our colleagues called us the Hush-Hush Boys,” Sorota told GE Reports during a visit at his retirement home in Florida in 2016, 10 months before his death. “We couldn’t talk to anyone about our work. They told us that we could be shot.”
The Last Of The Hush-Hush Boys
Sorota’s parents came to the U.S. from Rivne, now part of Ukraine. “My mother was 12 years old when her brother in America bought her a steerage ticket on the Titanic,” he said. “But the weather was bad in England and they missed the ship by two hours.”
Like many Jewish immigrants, the Sorotas settled in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester. Joseph showed a knack for all things mechanical from an early age, fixing machines and appliances for family and neighbors. “When he was 7 years old, he repaired a doctor’s cuckoo clock to settle a medical bill,” says his son Alan Sorota.
Sorota wanted to study engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but when he and his mother took the T there, they realized they couldn’t afford the fees. He settled for evening engineering courses offered by Northeastern University.
Sorota was still a student in 1941 when he joined GE’s factory in Lynn, 10 miles north of Boston. He was soon plunged into the opaque world of the industrial war effort.
A Knock On The Door
After a few months on the job, Sorota got called into the main office. “There was a man I never met who asked me what I did on the way home, did I have a girlfriend, did I have a drink at a bar,” he said. “When he identified himself as a man from the FBI, I almost died. I didn’t do anything wrong, but I thought he was there maybe to arrest me. It was the war.”
The man told Sorota to follow another stranger to a small building with a tall brick smokestack at the back of Lynn River’s industrial lot. “They told me that this was where I was going to work,” Sorota said.
The U.S. War Department and Army Air Corps had commissioned GE to rebuild and commercialize the British jet engine, known as the Whittle engine after its designer, Royal Air Force officer Frank Whittle. Now Sorota had been drafted into the effort.
The government selected GE for the project because of its knowledge of the high-temperature metals needed to withstand the heat inside the engine, and its expertise in building turbines for power plants and battleships, and superchargers for high-altitude bombers. GE now calls this know-how accessibility and cross-pollination the GE Store. “The FBI man warned me that if I gave away any secrets, the penalty was death,” Sorota said.
The Jackhammer And The Metric System
The project was so secret that team members had to pick up jackhammers, knock down walls and modify the workshop by themselves. Problems quickly popped up after they unpacked the engine from its box. “We didn’t have the right tools,” Sorota said. “Our wrenches didn’t fit the nuts and bolts because they were on the metric system. We had to grind them open a little more to get inside.”
GE had just six months to redesign the engine, and the team worked nonstop, guided by Whittle’s blueprints and a handful of British engineers. There were 15 people on Sorota’s shift. His job was to design the paths that channeled air inside the engine. Occasionally he would take trips to other secret sites and study jets salvaged from the German V-2 rocket bombs that were falling on England.
First FireIn March 1942, just five months into the project, the Hush-Hush Boys wheeled their prototype inside a concrete bunker called “Fort Knox” for a test. The cell opened into an old brick smokestack to channel exhaust and mask the tests. But the engine stalled. “We could only run it for a short while,” Sorota says.
They went back to their drawings, redesigned the compressor and started achieving higher thrust. Fort Knox, as well as the smokestack, still stands. Today, a small bronze plaque commemorates the feat.
The End Of The World As We Knew It
In the summer of 1942, 10 months after they started, the engineers loaded the first pair of working jet engines, each producing 1,300 pounds of thrust, onto a railcar and shipped them to the Muroc Army Air Field, in California’s Mojave Desert. The aircraft designer Larry Bell was working in parallel with the GE team and building America’s first jet, the XP-59. On Oct. 2, 1942, the plane soared to 6,000 feet, a small first step for a technology that ended up shrinking the world. The engine, called I-A, is now part of the Smithsonian collection in Washington, D.C.
The Axis Of Progress
The first GE engines used a radial — also called centrifugal — turbine to compress air streaming inside the engine and help it generate thrust. It was similar in design to older technology GE was using for turbo superchargers. Back at Lynn, Sorota started working on an engine with an axial turbine that pushed air through the engine along its axis. “The Whittle engine, when we took apart the compressor, was like a vacuum cleaner compressor,” he says. “It had a two-sided impeller that was very inefficient. Our engineers developed what now is known as the axial flow compressor.” This compressor is being used in practically every modern jet engine and gas turbine today.
Welcome To The Jet Age
The J47 engine became the first jet engine certified for commercial aviation — the jet age was reaching cruising altitude. GE made 35,000 J47s, making it the most produced jet engine in history. But Sorota wasn’t there to see it. His father died and he left the company to take over a handful of apartment buildings the family owned. “I didn’t want to go, but I had four siblings,” he said. “I was the oldest and had to take care of business.”
GE kept working on jet engines, which are now GE Aviation’s core product. The $24 billion business makes the world’s largest jet engines, now roughly 100 times more powerful than Sorota’s original. The latest engines like the GEnx and LEAP can be connected to the data cloud to analyze their efficiency and operations. A jet engine with GE technology takes off every two seconds somewhere in the world. Says Sorota: “It never dawned on me it was going to turn over the entire aircraft industry like it did.”
In the 1950s,GE made a documentary about the making of the first American jet engine. Take a look: