Memorial Tributes: Volume 26
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  • GERHARD NEUMANN (1917-1997)



    GERHARD NEUMANN, a war hero and aeronautical engineering pioneer who brought the General Electric Company (GE) to the forefront of jet propulsion, was born in Frankfurt an der Oder, Germany, in 1917, and died in Swampscott, Massachusetts, in 1997.

    Neumann’s early life resembles an adventure novel. A Jew raised in Nazi Germany, Neumann graduated in 1938 in mechanical engineering from the Ingenieur Schule Mittweida in Saxony, Germany. Escaping his native country as a German citizen, he was initially arrested in Hong Kong as an “enemy alien,” but soon achieved his objective of serving with the American Volunteer Group of the Chinese National Air Force, General Claire Lee Chennault's Flying Tigers. During World War II, he was an ace aviation mechanic and restored the Flying Tigers’ first flying Japanese Zero fighter, which he secured behind enemy lines. His post-war work with the United States Army Air Forces’ Technical Air Intelligence group and the Office of Strategic Services led to his receiving US citizenship by a special act of the US Congress in 1946. It was during this time that he married his wife, Clarice. They had two daughters—Jennifer and Stephanie—and a son, Lee. His experiences are chronicled in his autobiography, Herman the German: Enemy Alien U.S. Army Master Sergeant.

    Neumann joined GE’s aircraft engine business in 1948, becoming its leader from 1961 to 1979. In the late 1940s, he observed that compressor stationary stator vanes limited compressor efficiency at various operating modes and contributed to stalls. He proposed a design enabling stator vanes to change angles during flight. He soon received several patents for “variable stator” technology – now a standard feature on military and commercial jet engines.

    After becoming the division’s top executive, he initiated the “building block” concept of engine design, leading to the launch of several innovative GE engines, including the TF39 (for the C-5 military transport), the world’s first high-bypass turbofan engine, and the F101 (for the B-1 bomber), which spawned a family of successful military and commercial jet engines.

    During the 1960s and 1970s, Neumann oversaw the dramatic growth of GE’s engine business and surge into the airline industry. Hearkening back to his early days, Neumann received government approval in 1967 to go to Vietnam and interview Army mechanics maintaining GE engines in jungle combat zones. This Vietnam experience influenced the maintenance-friendly, modular design of GE’s T700 turboprop engine, which is now among the most ubiquitous helicopter engines in the Western World.

    In the late 1960s, he launched GE’s storied CF6 family of commercial engines for wide-body aircrafts. Against all odds, he co-led the creation of CFM International, a 50/50 joint venture between Safran Aircraft Engines (formerly SNECMA) of France and GE. CFM International would become the most prolific jet engine company in aviation history – delivering more than 34,000 CFM engines and counting. One of Neumann’s last acts as a GE leader in 1979 was to help secure the launch customer for the CFM program.

    In addition to his election to the NAE, Neumann was the recipient of numerous other honors, including France’s highest civilian honor, Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. He is the recipient of America’s top three aviation awards: the Collier Trophy (1958), the Goddard Gold Medal (1970), and the Guggenheim Medal in Aeronautics (1979), which he received “for the development of highly efficient aircraft engines for commercial and military purposes, including creation of one of the first successful turbofan engines which contributed significantly to the efficiency and success of the airline industry.” He also claimed to be most proud of what many referred to as “Neumann Way,” the short road leading to today’s GE Aerospace world headquarters in Evendale, Ohio.