DALLAS — Today in Aviation, the General Electric GE90, seen on the Boeing 777, entered service in 1995, changing the way aircraft were powered.
The engines first took flight on a British Airways (BA) trip between London Heathrow (LHR) and Dubai International Airport (DXB). GE noted at the time that the engine was the most reliable in the industry, with “a world-class dispatch reliability rate of 99.97%.”
As of July 2020, the manufacturer had surpassed 100 million flying hours on the engine.
GE90 to Remain a Force for the Future
Commenting on the 25th anniversary was Mike Kauffman, GE Aviation’s GE90 program manager, who at the time expressed pride over the engine’s successes and was hopeful for the future.
“We are excited to celebrate another GE90 milestone and would like to congratulate everyone involved in the engine’s success. We continue to deliver these extremely reliable engines, and our dedicated product support team will maintain the GE90 for many years to come, providing maximum value throughout its lifecycle.”
Up until the COVID-19 pandemic, the manufacturer had delivered more than 2,800 GE90-94Bs and upgraded 115B engines to 70 airlines around the world.
The Important Presence of the GE90
The GE90 powers the Boeing 777 aircraft family, from the 777-200LR to the 777-300ER and 777F variants. The engine built the foundations for the GE9X, which will be used specifically to power the upcoming 777X aircraft that Boeing aims to get onto the market over the next few years. The type flew gracefully with the new engines in November 2021 at the Dubai Airshow 2021.
The GE9X surpasses the GE90’s world record for the most powerful jet engine, as it provides 134,300 pounds of thrust, which is more than the GE90’s 127,900 pounds. With the new engine, General Electric has definitely thought about the successes of the GE90 and how they will translate to the Boeing 777X.
The GE90 was the largest jet engine until its successor surpassed it in January 2020 with 110,000 lbf (490 kN). While the GE9X has a 6 in (15 cm) wider fan than its predecessor, the GE90 is still more powerful than its successor.
The launch of the GE90 represented a significant array of things back in 1995. At the time, it was GE’s first new baseline engine for large commercial aircraft in more than two decades and would become the world’s most powerful engine.
It was also the world’s largest aircraft engine, offering a diameter of 123 inches, meaning that you could fit the fuselage of a Boeing 727 into the engine with no problems.
On top of this, the GE90 was the first successful example of composite fan blades for a commercial turbofan engine, which is what we see nowadays.
It Wasn’t All Sunshine and Rainbows
In the 1990s, when the engine was first announced, GE was stuck at the bottom, competing against the likes of Rolls Royce and Pratt & Whitney to service the Boeing 777. Despite the aforementioned technological advancements, the GE90 program faced a lot of technical and financial setbacks, with many airlines viewing the engine as too expensive.
In 1998, a US$275 million tax write-off was given to the corporate team at GE after canceling an upgrade development program for the engine that would have made the engine capable of 102,000 pounds of thrust. At that time, the media went on an attack against GE, especially due to the unit cost of the engine.
The Magic of McNerney
1997 was the magic year for GE when Jim McNerney entered the position of president of the company, spearheading one of the most significant turnaround strategies seen in the engine industry. A year later, McNerney and GE leaders traveled the world to acquire some level of enthusiasm for a new version of the GE90, which offered a more capable compressor.
Air France (AF) was one of the many customers who wanted a longer-range 777, meaning that GE responded with a 115,000-pound thrust-powered version of the engine.
Boeing agreed to support a larger GE90 if a sole-source engine deal on the 777 could be reached. This was good news, and it was the beginning of the fightback from GE against the media claims of the program being “dead.” By 1999, the surprise news of the GE90 being selected for the triple-seven engines had come through.
Boeing selected the GE90-115B turbofan in July of that year as the exclusive power for longer-range Boeing 777-300ER and 777-200LR jetliners. It was the greatest comeback in modern GE Aviation history.
Jack Welch, Chairman and CEO of General Electric at the time, showed sheer anxiousness over this engine, which was dubbed a “big bet” on success. “The GE90 is the most money I’ve ever spent on a new product, so let’s hope it all works out,” he said.
The Media was Wrong
In the end, the engine was a success, with Boeing managing to capture the niche market of the 777, securing 500 orders for the aircraft.
As McNerney emphasized, the engine was what was needed to progress the industry further and further into the skies. “The GE90-115B is the culmination of our original strategy to build a new centerline engine. It hits the sweet spot.”
The success then continued, with Boeing having to double its original forecasting, and by 2000, Japan Airlines (JL) ordered and became the launch customer for the Boeing 777-300ER. And from there came hundreds of orders for the aircraft, with Welch being glad that he made the right decision to invest big to win big.
“I felt vindicated that I had made the right choice in the size and configuration of the engine. Good airplanes grow, and they require good engines to grow with them,” wrote retired GE Aviation executive Brian Rowe in his autobiography.
An Overall Success Story
It is definitely clear that the GE90 has formed a fundamental part of the aviation industry, predominantly in the long-haul market where global destinations that weren’t once connected before are now a part of everyday lives.
The success of the GE90 also stems from the enthusiast’s side, who enjoys hearing its distinct and beautiful groan as it spools up on pushback. General Electric outdid itself on an engine that will remain in the history books for quite some time.
The Boeing 777X program has faced significant delays, with the first aircraft now expected to be delivered in early 2025. When that time comes, the 777X and its GE9X engines are poised to break other history-making records.
Featured image: General Electric GE90 right engine on a 773ER. Photo: Bernd K, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons