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'Bowled Over With A Feather': When Safran Aircraft Engines Went Courting for GE

May 30, 2019 | by Rick Kennedy
Drinks in a cozy, elegant cocktail lounge have preceded plenty of marriage proposals. But rarely has such a session led to the creation of the most prolific jet propulsion company in aviation history.

And yet, it happened—in April 1970 at the Ritz-Carlton lounge in Boston, where leaders of France’s government-owned Safran Aircraft Engines (called Snecma until 2005) came to court GE Aviation.

After opening pleasantries, the three French executives popped the question to their three, unsuspecting GE counterparts: Let’s get together and produce an offspring—a new turbofan engine in the 20,000-pound thrust class to compete in the booming jetliner industry.

“You could have bowled us over with a feather,” recalled Ed Woll, former head of GE Aviation engineering, in the book CFM: The Power of Flight. Drinks naturally led to dinner, as Woll, company head Gerhard Neumann, and GE lawyer Jim Sacks joined their French visitors for more formative discussions over a sumptuous meal at the top of Boston’s Prudential Building.

It took another four years of negotiations, strategic planning, and insuperable U.S. government hurdles, but the two companies eventually consummated the deal, creating CFM International, the enduring 50/50 joint propulsion company. Another five years passed before CFM landed an engine offer. But once it did, the floodgates opened with CFM56 engine applications secured for DC-8s, U.S. Air Force KC-135R tankers, Boeing 737s, and Airbus A320s—all by 1985.

Today, GE Aviation and Safran Aircraft Engines stand at a unique place in jet propulsion with total CFM orders and deliveries fast approaching an unprecedented 35,000 jet engines.

While Safran’s original proposal took GE by surprise, the companies were evolving in such a way that, in hindsight, the creation of CFM International had an air of inevitability.

Partnering Up

In the early 1960s, Safran, a producer of military engines for decades, began assembling Pratt & Whitney’s popular JT8D commercial engine under license. The company also teamed with Bristol Siddeley (later acquired by Rolls-Royce) in England on the Olympus engine for the Concorde supersonic jetliner. In 1968, Safran acquired the French aerospace company Hispano-Suiza, and a year later, pursued a commercial engine study designated the M56 in response to a French government dictum to advance the country’s commercial aviation capability.

GE Aviation made equally dramatic moves. In 1968, GE boldly returned to the jetliner business by launching its new CF6 turbofan engine on the Douglas DC-10. A year later, GE launched the CF6-50 on both the DC-10-30 and on the new A300 being developed by Airbus Industrie, the consortium established by the governments of France, West Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

Above: By 1985, the CFM56 engine secured applications for DC-8s, U.S. Air Force KC-135R tankers, Boeing 737s, and Airbus A320s. Top: Technicians oversee the maintenance of a CFM56 engine.

This is what led to Safran Aircraft Engines and GE first working together. To enhance its propulsion position in Europe, GE established a revenue-sharing arrangement with its new CF6-50 engine whereby Safran produced engine parts for GE-powered DC-10s and A300s sold in Europe.

Safran Aircraft Engines approached GE about jointly producing a new turbofan after less than fruitful talks with Roll-Royce and P&W. The timing was fortuitous. Safran’s M56 turbofan design concept meshed well with GE’s GE13 turbofan concept, which was also under study using the core of GE’s F101 military engine. (Earlier in 1970, the F101 had been selected by the U.S. Air Force to power the new B-1 bomber under development.) Safran was eager to work with the highly-advanced F101 engine hot section; GE was attracted to a strong aviation alliance with a highly-motivated French government.

The partnership had another advantage. In 1971, Neumann forged a strong, trusting friendship with new Safran president René Ravaud. A veteran aerospace engineer, Ravaud was a French resistance hero during World War II who lost his right arm during the bombing of Brest Harbor in 1944. Neumann, a German immigrant, was an ace airplane mechanic with America’s “Flying Tigers” in China. He became a U.S. citizen through a special act of Congress for his World War II service. “He [Ravaud] and I clicked from the very first moment we met,” Neumann wrote in his autobiography.

Unfortunately, the GE/Safran plan didn’t click with the U.S. government. In 1972, the White House under President Richard Nixon rejected GE’s export license application of the F101 engine core for the joint engine development with Safran. George Schultz, the treasury secretary at the time, claimed the license would hand critical, U.S.-funded technology to a foreign government years before the F101 engine could enter service on the B-1 bomber.

GE and Safran would not take no for an answer. French President Georges Pompidou gave the venture critical support, insisting the F101 export license be on the agenda of trade talks he would be having with Nixon in Iceland in the coming year. GE also sweetened the pot, promising the U.S. Government royalty payments of $20,000 for each CFM56 sold for several years. GE argued that spreading the F101 core development across military and commercial aircraft programs would save the U.S. government $180 million over the life of the program.

At the Iceland summit, Nixon granted the export license, though by all accounts, was indifferent to the engine’s potential economic benefits to the U.S. “He [Nixon] couldn’t have cared less about this,” recalled Jack Hope, a consultant to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Family Affair

The resulting joint company between GE and Safran, CFM International, was established in 1974. Testing soon began on the first version of the CFM56-2 turbofan engine (launched in 1979 on a DC-8 re-engining program).

Today, GE Aviation and Safran Aircraft Engines stand at a unique place in jet propulsion with total CFM orders and deliveries fast approaching an unprecedented 35,000 jet engines.

The 50/50 joint company has proven enduring, created as a single entity charged with developing and selling the CFM56 engine family. Revenues are split equally between the parent companies; profits are held separately within each parent company’s operations. The “CF” in CFM is derived from GE’s use of the letters to designate “commercial turbofan.” The “M” is from M56, Safran’s original designation for the new engine.

Though the joint company experienced several near-death experiences in the early years, the success of CFM International would exceed everyone’s imagination. The two companies have extended the partnership to the year 2040 and expanded their cooperative technology efforts beyond CFM into other ventures, such as carbon-fiber fan blades and ceramic matrix composite materials.

GE Aviation President David Joyce doesn’t hesitate a moment to declare the CFM partnership today as strong as ever, with the close friendships between American and French families touched by the joint company extending through the generations.

Pierre Fabre, retired CFM president, agrees. “CFM is very much like a long marriage,” said Fabre recently during his induction into the GE Aviation Jet Propulsion Hall of Fame. “There have always been ups and downs between us, like any couple, but we have always been on the same mission. And we have worked very hard to stay humble while being so very successful.”

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GE Aerospace is a world-leading provider of jet and turboprop engines, as well as integrated systems for commercial, military, business and general aviation aircraft.