Sunday, July 23, 2000

GE Aircraft realizes a dream with Boeing contract

GE90 exclusive engine to power new airplane

By Mike Boyer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It was just before the July the Fourth weekend last year when Chuck Chadwell got the phone call he'd been waiting on for more than six months.

(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        Mr. Chadwell, GE Aircraft Engines' vice president of commercial operations, was visiting his son in Chicago when John Roundhill, Boeing Commercial Airplane Co.'s chief product manager, called to alert him that Boeing had picked the growth version of the GE90 as the exclusive engine on the new long-range, twin-engine 777X airplane.

        “I was ecstatic,” said Mr. Chadwell, who had spent the previous six months visiting Seattle weekly to meet with Boeing. The airplane company had been evaluating the GE90 and competing power plants from Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp., and Rolls Royce Plc. as the exclusive engine for its new long-range jet.

        Boeing's decision for the growth GE90 also validated more than a decade of development and billions of dollars of investment by GE and its international partners — Snecma of France, IHI of Japan and Fiat of Italy — in the GE90. As the world's largest jet engine, the new version of the GE90 will be capable of 115,000 pounds of takeoff thrust, about twice that of GE's CF6 engine.

        Boeing and GE, which is helping underwrite a portion of the cost of the long-range 777, are expected to announce the first handful of orders for the GE90-powered 777-200 and -300 this week at the Farnborough International Air Show in England.

        GEAE has said it anticipates engine revenues approaching $20 billion in the next few decades from the long-range 777.

        But before the growth GE90 could become a reality, GE had to overcome a series of technical and commercial challenges that might seem daunting to other than one of the world's largest industrial companies.

        In fact, GE may be one of the few companies with the combination of engineering skill and financial clout to make such a big machine not only work technically but succeed commercially.

        “At the risk of sounding arrogant, I really do believe that,” said Russ Sparks, former GE90 general manager and now vice president of GEAE's military engine operations.

        “When I think back to all the support I had as project manager from GE executive management ... it really was a corporate effort,” he said.

        The new GE90-powered, long-range Boeing 777-200 and 777-300s will be capable of flying routes of up to 10,000 miles when the jets enter service in late 2003.

        The market for the long-range 777s is being fueled by interest in planes capable of flying long routes such as New York City to Singapore, and by a growing long distance point-to-point market from secondary cities such as Cincinnati and Charlotte, N.C., replacing older Boeing 747s.

  Here's a look at the path the GE90 has taken from its launch a decade ago.
  January, 1990 — GE Aircraft Engines launches its first new commercial engine program in two decades. Then-GEAE President Brian Rowe says the engine will eventually be capable of generating more than 100,000 pounds of thrust and cost more than $1.5 billion to develop.
  August, 1991 — British Airways becomes the launch customer for the GE90, placing orders for 15 Boeing 777 aircraft and options for 15 more. The order comes two months after the first 777 customer, United Airlines, picked Pratt & Whitney engines over the GE90 for its planes.
  November 1992 — Testing of the GE90's high-pressure compressor, combustor and high pressure turbine begin.
  March 1993 — The GE90 achieves 105,400 pounds of thrust during initial ground testing at GE's Pebbles, Ohio test facility.
  December 1993 — Engine flight tests begin on a specially equipped Boeing 747 leased by GE.
  February 1995 — FAA certifies the engine and flight tests on the Boeing 777 begin in Seattle.
  Sept. 22, 1995 — Boeing and GE postpone the Sept. 30 delivery of the first GE90-powered 777 to complete testing of compressor blade modifications to improve their ice damage durability.
  Nov. 17, 1995 — British Airways introduces the GE90-powered 777 on flights between London and Dubai, Saudi Arabia after the engine-aircraft combination is certified by aviation authorities.
  May, 1997 — GE puts on hold its plans for a 102,000 pound thrust version of the GE90, saying it isn't convinced there's a market for that engine of that size.
  Nov. 11, 1997 — Long-time GE customer American Airlines picks Rolls Royce to power its initial order of 11 777s.
  July, 7, 1999 — Following an extensive evaluation, Boeing Co. picks the GE to develop a derivative of its GE90 engine, capable of up to 115,000 pounds of thrust to be the exclusive power plant on its long-range 777-200X and -300X.
  March 1, 2000 Boeing and GE formally launch the long-range 777-200 and -300, powered exclusively by the GE90, announcing commitments from several carriers. GE Chairman Jack Welch calls the GE90 the largest technical investment in the company's history.
        It's what Alan Mullally, Boeing Commercial Airplane president, calls “the Internet in the sky.”

        Boeing's choice of the GE90 for the long-range 777 confirmed the vision of retired GEAE president Brian Rowe and GE engineers that the commercial aviation market would eventually gravitate to large, twin-engine aircraft to fly the Northern Pacific routes just as the Boeing 767 and Airbus Industrie A300 transformed trans-Atlantic flight to twin-engine aircraft.

        “There was no question in my mind, and I think in Boeing's mind: Why have four engines when two engines are reliable and safe. That's when the idea of a big airplane came about,” Mr. Rowe said recently. “I just felt down the road there would be a need for an engine that would go from 80,000 (pounds of takeoff thrust) to 125,000 (pounds of thrust.)”

        But it was just three years ago that the GE90 was on shaky ground commercially.

        Although the new engine, launched in late 1995 on lighter gross weight 777s ordered by British Airways, was performing near flawlessly in service, the program was hemorrhaging money and was third in a three-horse race for 777 market share with rivals Pratt & Whitneyand Rolls Royce Plc. Those two engine-makers were offering derivative engines rather than all new power plants for the 777.

        All of which caused people in the industry, including some at GE, to question whether the engine's promise would ever be fulfilled.

        “We knew the technology was a winner,” said W. James McNerney, who was named GEAE president in summer 1997. “I did inherit a program that was struggling commercially. The costs were higher than we anticipated, quite frankly.”

        The GE90 had started life as a huge investment and considerable risk for GE a decade earlier. The jet engine business is long term. New jet engines aren't developed all that often, so success, and failure, have a long-term effect on a company's bottom line.

        GEAE's announcement in January 1990 that it would build a big new engine that would have lower noise, emissions and fuel consumption than its competitors spurred tremendous interest in the aviation industry and within GE's jet engine business.

        “The environment was so positive. The product was so impressive. Its ultimate capability was so good. The horse (aircraft) it was going to ride had a tremendous business outlook,” said Dick Ostrom, manager of advanced program integration, who joined the GE90 program in 1991. “The 777 was destined to be a real milestone in aviation for lot of reasons.”

        To achieve the improved fuel consumption envisioned for the GE90, GE engineers opted for a higher bypass ratio — which moved more air around than through the engine combustor — and an extremely high engine pressure ratio.

        “We wanted to size the engine to a bypass ratio of around 9 to 1, the highest in the industry. What that implies is a large fan,” Mr. Ostrom said. By contrast, most large turbofan engines operate with 12 or more stage compressors.

        Fewer compressor stages meant fewer engine parts — and thus lower manufacturing and maintenance costs.

        The fan on the initial GE90 was 123 inches, about the diameter of the fuselage of the Boeing 727 jetliner. The fan for the growth engine for the long-range 777-200 and -300 will be even larger at 128 inches.

        “If you build a large diameter fan out of metal, you're going to start putting metal at large diameters. That weighs up real fast,” said Mr. Ostrom.

        To cut the weight, GE engineers chose to make the fan blades of carbon fiber composites with a leading edge of titanium.

        Yet using composite materials posed considerable risk. Twenty-five years earlier, Rolls Royce was pushed to the brink of bankruptcy because of the failure of composite blades on its RD211 engine.

        GE was no stranger to composites. The company has a practice of investing in developing technology so it can have it on the shelf ready to use when it's needed. It had successfully used composite blades on its demonstrator Unducted Fan Engine, which featured a rear-mounted fan in the late 1980s.

        “The fan blade was new technology that required a lot of learning,” said Dr. Michael J. Benzakein, GEAE's general manger of advanced engineering, who headed early testing and certification of the GE90.

        “I can't tell you the number of Saturday meetings we had for months just to make sure we knew how to inspect the fan blade,” he said.

        In the end, the GE90 benefitted from more than 20 years of development in composites technology and in computer analysis to test that technology.

        “The resin systems and fibers available to us in the late 1980s and early '90s were far better than resin system and fibers that existed 25 years before,” Mr. Ostrom said.

        “The other thing was computer-aided tools that really didn't exist 25 years ago,” he said. Back then, “you tested (materials) them and broke them. It was build, test and break. Find the weaknesses and design again. With a computer-aided test run, we didn't have to go through that cycle.”

        Two other key engine components — the high pressure ratio compressor and dual annual combustor, a key to reducing engine emissions — were the products of similar technology stocking efforts GE had under taken as result of test programs with NASA.

        “From the time it went through certification until today, we're finding the GE90 is the best performing engine relative to noise, emissions and specific fuel consumption,” Mr. Chadwell said.

        Since launching the GE90 in November 1995 on 777s ordered by British Airways, the 90 777s operated by 12 airlines around the world have accumulated more than 1.25 million flight hours.

        In that time, only one fan blade has incurred damage from a bird strike that was deemed unrepairable.

        In the end, despite widespread concern about the durability of composite fans, “the most reliable component on that engine has been the fan blade,” Dr. Benzakein said.

        Yet although the GE90 was a success in service, it originally wasn't winning the battle for market share. Because early versions of the 777 were smaller, the engines required less thrust — giving competing, smaller power plants from Rolls and Pratt a market advantage.

        The three-way engine competition on the 777 turned airline performance evaluations into price wars.

        “Everybody began to realize — the program people, the sales people, the whole organization, that this was a very competitive market and we were having to sell on price,” Mr. Ostrom said. “We had the newest machines, the most high-tech and the most high-cost. That was a barrier.”

        By early 1997, GE was saying it wouldn't cut its GE90 price to gain market share. But against a backdrop of slow sales, Boeing and GE were quietly debating the next growth step for the engine and the 777.

        “We went through a huge debate with ourselves in the '97-98 time period about what the next logical step was,” Mr. Chadwell said. “Boeing was kind of promoting a 98,000-pound engine. We weren't to keen about that for a lot of reasons.”

        Boeing had been proposing growing the 777 to a 715,000 pound gross weight aircraft, which would require two engines of about 100,000 pounds of thrust.

        But GE, in line with Brian Rowe's original vision of a big twin-engine aircraft, was holding out for a heavier aircraft requiring upwards of 115,000 pounds of thrust.

        “If you do a 100,000-pound engine, the costs are probably very close to what it would cost us to do a 115,000. It was an interim step and we didn't see the economic benefits to GE,” Mr. Chadwell said.

        “Boeing was looking to grow as they saw the market and we were looking to grow as we saw it,” Mr. Chadwell said. “We just didn't see that it added enough range to the aircraft to do a 98,000 or 100,000 (pound) engine.”

        On the sales side, the GE90 suffered another big setback in late 1997 when long-time customer American Airlines opted to use Rolls' Trent engine on its 777 fleet.

        Loss of the American Airlines order triggered media speculation about the commercial viability of GE's big engine program, said Chaker Chahrour, who succeeded Mr. Sparks at GE90 general manager in late 1997.

        Even while the engine's commercial outlook seemed bleak, GE continued to invest in the program — doing an upgrade of the engine, improving the design of the airfoils as part of program to build a 94,000 pound thrust engine for 777s ordered by Air France.

        “That was a huge expense for us — a $50 million expense,” Mr. Chahrour said. “The business wasn't going to make that commitment if we didn't feel there was a future for the engine.”

        Mr. Chadwell said the aerodynamically redesigned airfoils on the 94,000-pound engine, slated to enter service this fall on Air France 777s, were an important building block toward the 115,000-pound engine.

        “We wanted to get that technology matured in the event we could find the right kind of aircraft-engine deal to go forward with the big airplane,” he said.

        At the same time, Mr. McNerneywas focused on the high cost of producing the GE90.

        “We had a choice when I came in. There was one faction that wanted to grow the engine immediately, go cut a deal with Boeing and get it to 115,000 pounds (of thrust) right now.

        “And there was another faction — led by me — saying: "Hey, we don't have the current engine in shape. We have to prove we can commercialize the current technologies.'”

        In fiscal 1997, GE corporate took a $275 million charge to write off higher production costs for the GE90.

        Over the next year, Mr. McNerney said, the GE90's manufacturing and engineering staff worked to cut costs.

        “We had a great engine that cost too much to make,” Mr. McNerney said. “They delivered. That gave us the credibility to go forward.”

        By mid-1998, Mr. Chahrour said GE was picking up indications that Boeing had come around to the view that a bigger 777 was better than a smaller plane.

        During a product strategy meeting in Paris, he said Boeing officials asked him what it would take to produce an engine for a bigger 777.

        “My reaction was it's easy,'” he said. “It's got to be a business case that closes for us, and the only way I see that closing is if if we're the only engine on that airplane.”

        That led to Boeing's extensive three-way evaluation of the GE90, Pratt and Rolls engines, culminating in the GE90's selection nearly a year later.

        In the end, Mr. Chahrour said the GE90's biggest disadvantage had been turned into its biggest plus.

        Because of the GE90s demonstrated reliability and performance on the smaller 777s, it was now viewed as a derivative engine for the bigger jet — while the competitors were developing new engines for long-range jets.

- GE Aircraft realizes a dream with Boeing contract
The launch of the GE90

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