As part of GE’s sponsorship of the Ronald Reagan Centennial Celebration — which is a two-year-long commemoration of President Reagan’s 100th birthday on February 6, 2011 — we’ll be taking an ongoing look at Reagan’s eight years at GE through the lens of the employees he met and the technologies they made.
Ronald Reagan’s early years at GE as the company’s goodwill ambassador coincided with the advent of the jet age — the arrival of air travel powered by bigger and faster aircraft, making commercial transcontinental flights viable for the first time. The dawn of the modern military jet age had already begun, and in 1951 GE’s initial development of the J79 military turbojet engine put the company at the forefront of the aviation revolution. On General Electric Theater in 1957, Reagan and GE’s “progress reporter” Don Herbert — better known as television’s “Mr. Wizard” — touted the J79 as a critical component of American national defense and a key way in which GE was playing a part in it. Indeed, the J79 — and its innovation of the variable stator vane — was the forerunner of modern military engine technology and was crucial in the evolution of GE’s entire aviation business.
|The right stuff: Chuck Yeager is seen here in the cockpit of an NF-104 on December 4, 1963. The first application of the J79 was the Lockheed F104 Starfighter, which first flew on February 17, 1956 and was known for the distinctive howl of its engine. That same year, the J79 powered the F104 in the first sustained flight of a manned aircraft at twice the speed of sound (Mach 2). In this photo, Yeager is flying a modified version, the NF-104A. In addition to the standard J79, Yeager’s plane also had a rocket engine fitted at the base of the vertical fin. Photo: U.S. Air Force via Wikipedia.|
“It opened the door to everything,” says Jim Johnson, a GE consultant and a former aviation engineer at the company for 42 years. “If not for the J79, I don’t know if there would be a GE from a jet engine company perspective.”
Johnson says that it’s the mechanical device called the variable stator vane that connects the engine’s Reagan era beginnings to modern technology like GE’s newest GEnx engine for the 747 freighter and 787 Dreamliner. The critical innovation of the variable stator vane, now an ubiquitous feature of today’s jet engines, allowed the engine to achieve much higher air pressures within the compressor without inducing a stall. Unlike in earlier turbojets, the vanes adjust depending on the angle of the plane and the way in which the air is coming in. The resulting higher pressure that’s achieved — combined with the weight reduction enabled by the new design — represented a critical leap in the evolution of supersonic flight.
|Making progress: In a video clip on www.ge.com/reagan, “General Electric Progress Reporter” Don Herbert gives a tour of GE technologies, ranging from the benefits of electricity to the power of the J79. Reagan served as the host of the weekly TV series, General Electric Theater — and as a GE goodwill ambassador from 1954 to 1962.|
There were more than 17,000 J79’s built over the next three decades, making it a dominant force in powering military aircraft. In the 1960’s, a variation of the J79 gave GE its first entry into the commercial airline industry. “Every engine we have, utilizes variable stator technology,” Johnson says. “All gas generators derive from some form of variable stator geometry.”
|Proud papa: In 1959, the J79 powered the first manned aircraft (again, a Lockheed F104) to exceed an altitude of 100,000 feet from a ground takeoff. When the first J79 was tested, it was placed in a bomb bay of a J47-powered B-45 Tornado. The engine was tested by lowering it from the bomb bay into the air stream. The four J47s were shut down and the J79 powered the B-45.|
|Building block: In the following decades, the know-how and technology used to create the J79 led GE to a series of successful military and commercial engines. GE engineers used the J79 prototype to make future aircrafts engines faster, safer and more fuel-efficient.|
After more than 50 years and long after production ended, the J79 is still in service in countries throughout the world. GE Aviation and MTU Aero Engines, the German-based company that began producing J79 engines in the 1960s, work together to repair, restore and refurbish J79 engines, components and parts to meet the demand of customers. GE Aviation recently estimated there are still more than 1,300 J79′s in service today.
|Do the hustle: Other aircraft powered by the J79 include the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, the North American RA-5C Vigilante, and General Dynamics’ distinctive delta-winged B-58 Hustler, the world’s first supersonic bomber, pictured above. Photo: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.|
Learn more in these GE Reports stories:
* “Six degrees of GE: Our random links to luminaries”
* “Reagan & GE: Holography caps a ‘Progress Report’”
* “Leaps in the lab: From Reagan’s TV to digital x-rays”
* “Coast to coast with 250,000 employees: Reagan at GE”
* “The Reagan centennial: A legacy of progress”
* Read Reagan essays on our website by Thomas W. Evans, Peggy Noonan, Andrea Mitchell, Tom Brokaw, Rudy Giuliani, Pat Buchanan, author Eric Dezenhall and GE retirees who worked with Reagan
* See more of Reagan’s General Electric Theater spots by clicking the GE Theater tab in the upper menu
* Read GE’s Centennial announcement
* Learn more about the centennial at www.reagancentennial.com
* Watch a rebroadcast of Jeff Immelt’s speech at the Reagan Library