There were no television cameras to record the top-secret flight, no flowers and champagne to greet the pilot. But his landing has changed the world and the way we live and travel.
On October 2, 1942, test pilot Laurence C. “Bill” Craigie climbed into the cockpit of his experimental jet plane, the Bell XP-59A Airacomet, parked on the flat dry bed of Muroc Lake in California’s Mojave Desert. He briefly taxied on the dusty runway, roared a pair of I-A GE jet engines – the first jet engines made in America – and aimed the plane at the deep blue sky. “The flight itself was quite uneventful,” Craigie told the writer Steve Pace years later. “My clearest recollection of my flight in the XP-59A was the extreme quiet and complete lack of vibration as I took off.” It was the first official jet flight in U.S. history.
Into the Great Wide Open: Bill Craigie took off in his XP-59A Airacomet from Muroc Lake 70 years ago. He climbed to 6,000 feet during the first official jet flight in U.S. history. The Airacomet was powered by two GE jet engines – the first jet engines made in America.
A handful of GE engineers were on hand at the desert military base that day. Joseph Sorota, now 93 years old, is one of the last living veterans of the secret project to build the jet engines. “They called us the Hush-Hush Boys,” Sorota says.
Much of the development work took place inside a wooden shack in the back lot of GE’s plant in Lynn, Massachusetts. In September 1941, Sorota’s team received a large package from England, under attack by Nazi Germany. Inside was one of the world’s first jet engines developed by British Royal Air Force officer Sir Frank Whittle. Because of GE’s extensive experience with turbo superchargers and steam turbines, the U.S. Air Force picked GE to improve on Whittle’s design.
Problems appeared up almost immediately. “We didn’t have the right tools,” Sorota says. “Our tools didn’t fit the screws because they were on the metric system. We had to grind our tools open a little more to get inside.” Calling for help was out of the question. “The work was top secret, we couldn’t call in the maintenance department,” he says. “I was knocking down walls with a jackhammer when we had to make more room for a test chamber.”
In just 10 months, the GE team had an engine ready for flight. Sorota was not at Lake Muroc when Craigie took off. He was back at Lynn, teaching mechanics how to fix the engine inside a public school, which the government commandeered for that purpose. With World War II still raging, the jet engine was the Pentagon’s secret weapon.
GE has been now making jet engines for seven decades. Its jet technology propels small commuter aircraft, high-tech fighter jets, as well as giant A380 double-decker jumbos and even power plants. A quartet of GE engines powers the Presidential Air Force One.
GE, alone and in partnership with firms like France’s Snecma, has built almost 150,000 jet engines. They are linking continents and shrinking the world. Always innovating, the company has introduced revolutionary designs and materials like ceramic composites that boost efficiency and cut weight, fuel costs, and emissions. Where Craigie’s jet engines had each 1,250 pounds of thrust, GE’s largest engine, the GE90-115B, hit 127,500 pounds, a world record. How much is that? Consider that the Redstone rocket that took Alan Shepard to space had just 78,000 pounds of thrust, and the combined thrust of all eight engines that power the huge B-52 Stratofortress bomber clocks in at 136,000 pounds.
Says Tom Brisken, former general manager at GE Aviation: “We apply every piece of technology we have to our advantage.”