Jet travel is second nature to us, but not too long ago the Jet Age was a top secret project that fit inside a drab wooden workshop on a back factory lot outside Boston, Massachusetts. In 1942, exactly 70 years ago, a handful of GE engineers working non-stop for ten months built America’s first jet engine. Their mission was to win the war, but they ended up shrinking the world. “They called us the Hush-Hush Boys,” says Joseph Sorota, who is 93 and one of the last living veterans of the project.
They called them the Hush-Hush Boys: A team of GE engineers stand next to GE’s I-A jet engine. In 1942, they launched America in into the Jet Age.
Sorota was a 20-year old engineering graduate from Northeastern University when he joined the program as employee No. 5. He had been hired by GE’s plant in Lynn River, Massachusetts, to build advanced propeller engines for high-altitude bombers flying missions over Europe and the Pacific. “One day I got called into the main office,” Sorota says. “There was a man I had never met who asked me what I did on the way home, who I talked to, and whether I stopped at the bar. 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.”
After the interrogation, the man told Sorota to follow another stranger to a small building at the back of Lynn River’s industrial lot. “They told me that this was where I was going to work,” Sorota says. “The FBI man warned me that if I gave away any secrets, the penalty was death. That’s the way he said it. He was serious.”
When Sorota first entered the structure, “there was nothing going on at all,” he says. “It was just a plain concrete building.” But that soon changed. In September 1941, his new team received a present from England, 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 Air Force picked GE to improve on Whittle’s design and build America’s first jet engine.
(Whittle is recognized as the inventor of the jet engine, along with Germany’s Hans von Ohain. They developed their first prototypes independently in war-torn Europe the late 1930s. They did not meet in person until 1966. Whittle was knighted for his work on the jet engine.)
Sorota and his teammates first had to fix their workshop. “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.”
When they unpacked Whittle’s engine, new problems popped up. “We didn’t have the right tools,” he 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.”
The teams, aided by Whittle’s blueprints and a couple of British engineers, started working non-stop. There were 15 people on Sorota’s shift. He was designing the engine’s air flow paths. Occasionally, he would take trips to other secret sites and study engines salvaged from German V-2 rocket bombs that were raining on England.
In March 1942, just five months into the project, the engineers wheeled their first engine, called I-A, inside a concrete test cell which they called “Fort Knox.” But it stalled. “We could only run it for a short while,” Sorota says. “We took it apart, assembled it, put it together, and ran tests again. We went on with designing.” The redesigned the compressor and started to achieve higher thrust.
In the summer of 1942, 10 months after they started, GE shipped the first working jet engines to the Muroc Army Air Field, in California’s Mojave Desert. The Air Force strapped them to Bell’s experimental XP-59 aircraft called Airacomet. On October 2, 1942, it climbed to 6,000 feet.
Sorota did not see the maiden flight. He was busy at Lynn, perfecting the engines and teaching Air Force mechanics to fix them inside a public school, which the government commandeered for that purpose.
In 1945, the Air Force told Sorota to put on a uniform and travel to the Pacific with a squadron of Lockheed’s P-80 Shooting Star aircraft, the Air Force’s first real fighter jets. The Shooting Star was powered by a brand new GE J33 jet engine and became the first U.S. plane to break the 500 miles per hour barrier. “They gave me papers showing that I was involved in the service even though I was still a GE employee,” Sorota says. “They said that if [the Japanese] captured me without military papers, they could say that I was a spy and I could be shot.”
But Sorota never left. Another secret project ended the war. “They dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and the war was over,” he says. “I was looking forward to going. I was in my twenties and all excited.”