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Steering the Iconic GE90 Through Turbulence

March 06, 2020 | by Rick Kennedy
The late GE Aviation leader Brian H. Rowe established the GE Aviation Propulsion Hall of Fame in 1982.  Since then, 146 aviation leaders have been inducted. The “Decision Point” series tells memorable stories and lessons learned from these esteemed members.  Perhaps you will find their stories relevant to today’s aviation challenges and successes.

Russ Sparks has a gift for framing complicated things in clear homespun ways. Take a new jet engine development program, a complex and expensive process that Sparks can encapsulate from his 40 years at GE Aviation.

“These new products [engines] are generational decisions,” says the 2016 inductee to the GE Aviation Propulsion Hall of Fame. “You create a product strategy with technologies that give you a competitive advantage and you build it around a business model that wins the financial support of leadership. Then, you spend the rest of your life dealing every day in short-term issues. These issues will continue through development and service entry, and as you manage them, you must never lose sight of the product strategy.”

Above: GE Aviation Propulsion Hall of Fame Russ Sparks. Top: The first flight of the GE90-powered Boeing 777.

Plain and simple. And, no one understands this reality more than Sparks, who managed the GE90 engine development from 1992 to 1997. One of jet propulsion’s truly audacious creations, the GE90 launched in 1990, and then faced years of technical and financial challenges during the heart of a brutal aviation recession.

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the first flight of the GE90-powered Boeing 777. The extraordinary success of this engine-aircraft combination, and the GE90’s design influence on every GE commercial engine since, leaves Sparks “in awe.” He steered the engine through its most challenging era, and in doing so, he left his own lasting impact on GE Aviation.

They say you can watch new jet engine program leaders age before your eyes. This probably occurred to Sparks when Mike Lockhart, former head of commercial engines, called him into his office one Friday afternoon in August 1992. The GE90, the world’s largest and most powerful engine, faced serious growing pains.

“They were making a program leadership change with the GE90,” recalls Sparks, who had earned his stripes as a design engineer and program leader. “Mike asked me to think over the weekend about taking the job, and then come back Monday and tell him that I would do it.”

The issue was most definitely not an incompetent team. But the GE90 design was revolutionary. For starters, it was GE’s first commercial engine not derived from a military engine. Its massive front fan featured carbon fiber composite blades, the new compressor produced record efficiency, and the combustor was radically different. The engine’s creator, GE legend Brian Rowe, explained the philosophy: The slow-turning front fan created enormous thrust and low noise while the fast-turning compressor provided fuel efficiency and lower emissions. In other words, the engine core worked hard so the fan didn’t have to.

A Flight International cover featuring the GE90 from 1992.

The GE90 technical team in the 1990s was a who’s who of GE leaders, including GE Aviation Hall of Famers Mike Benzakein and Corbett Caudill, and current GE Aviation president and CEO David Joyce. “I have never worked with such a resilient team in my life,” recalls Sparks, who developed an excellent reputation for spotting talented engineers and mentoring them.

He quickly developed a sort of “Mr. Inside/Mr. Outside” strategy. Engineering leaders Caudill and Benzakein focused technical teams on fixing engine issues while Sparks directed the overall project and became the engine’s face to GE leadership, Boeing, launch customer British Airways, and airlines leaders around the world.

It taught him valuable lessons in delivering bad news. “You identify your key stakeholders and let them know right away if you have problem,” he says. “It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t understand it yet,’ as long as they know the problem has your full attention. In today’s world, it’s too easy to use email. You have to make that personal connection [with stakeholders]. Pick up the phone! Use your technical depth to make the issue understandable. And call them back again and again.”

In May 1995, a few months before the GE90 was to enter service, Sparks gave the roughest presentation of his life. “I went to London to update British Airways, the best launch customer you could have. I said we had a bad fan blade test, the flight test program was grounded, we had a compressor stall, and we couldn’t figure out why we were losing EGT”—exhaust gas temperature—“margin. My worse set of PowerPoint charts ever. It was the best thing I ever did.”

Another key lesson involved motivation. In addition to quarterly meetings to review accomplishments and goals, he also organized GE90 team celebrations. He likened the GE90 development phase to early settlers crossing the Great Plains. “They’d walk all day and wake up the next morning and the wide horizon was still ahead,” he says. “That’s how it felt. You have to celebrate small victories. You have to stop and look back at what you accomplished. I remember telling the team ‘Jack Welch is frustrated—but he really likes you guys!’ We always reminded ourselves that this was the best engine for a great airplane.”

And for good reason. As aviation history would show, the GE90 ultimately proved an amazing technical and business success powering the Boeing 777 family. By 1997, Sparks was promoted to new GE assignments. Two years later, Boeing selected the GE90-115B for the game-changing Boeing 777-300ER. Sparks is proud to be part of its genesis.

He vividly recalls the day in 1993 when GE90 engineers Bill Harman and Paul Fieg huddled with him after they had evaluated the 777 structure, including its wing size, landing gear, spine, and tail. Conclusion: The plane wanted to grow. “Here we are trying to certify the GE90 at 84,000 pounds of thrust, and they are showing me how the plane wants to grow much larger and would need 110,000 to 120,000 pounds of thrust,” Sparks recalls.

They took a GE90 growth plan—involving a larger fan diameter and de-staged compressor for greater airflow—to Rowe, who had recently retired as head of GE Aviation and was now chairman emeritus. After reviewing the drawings, Rowe, ever the technology enthusiast, declared in his British accent “Let’s go!” but with a stern order: Keep this plan under your hat. “So, we established our own skunk works to very quietly lay the groundwork for what became the GE90-115B,” he says.

Sparks was soon promoted to vice president within GE Engine Services, and from 1999 to 2009 ran GE Aviation’s military operations. He retired from GE in 2011 and served as a GE consultant for several years afterwards. His success running GE Aviation’s military operations is reflected in an annual GE military leadership award presented in his name.

But the highlight of his time at GE? “Looking back, I have to say the GE90 role was the best job of my career,” says Sparks, who now splits his time between Florida and Cincinnati. “I loved every day on that job. And that engine, which was Brian Rowe’s vision, would change everything.”

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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.