Observation Deck

Franco-American Cooperation, Forty Years On

CFM celebrates its fortieth anniversary

Although there has not been a lot of fanfare, particularly in public, 2014 is noteworthy as the fortieth anniversary of the formation of CFM International, the producer of the CFM56 engine, which has the largest market share on current production single-aisle jetliners. Furthermore, this 50/50 joint venture of France’s SNECMA (now a subsidiary of Safran) and General Electric of the U.S. looks to carry this record onwards for a number of years, at the least.

To put the single-aisle market in perspective, in 1974 one engine manufacturer, Pratt & Whitney, had virtually all the marbles, so to speak. Its JT8D engine was the exclusive powerplant on both the Boeing 727 and 737, and the McDonnell Douglas DC-9. This trio of aircraft dominated short- and medium-range sales outside of the USSR, and the UK. The USSR’s products were typically not used outside that country’s sphere of influence, and while the British BAC One-Eleven and Trident (which were powered by Rolls-Royce Spey engines) did achieve significant success in terms of geography, their sales numbers paled in comparison with the American trio.

For that matter, GE had been absent from the airliner market subsequent to its participation in the Convair 880/990 program in the late 1950s/early 1960s, having only re-entered in the early 1970s via the CF6 engine designed for widebodies, including the Boeing 747 and McDonnell Douglas DC-10 initially.

At the start, the cooperative venture was targeted at the AMST (Advanced Medium STOL Transport) competition being run by the U.S. military. A further sales target was the potential market for re-engining 707s and DC-8s. Both of these early transports had engines that were not as fuel-efficient as newer designs, and were particularly disadvantaged versus the “high-bypass” engines -- such as the CF6 -- that were increasingly taking over long-haul international routes from the 707s and DC-8s. In addition, there was a growing concern that more stringent noise regulations would render these two types obsolete, even though many of them had significant economic lives remaining, particularly the DC-8s.

Initial success came in the form of a military contract, however. CFMI won the opportunity to re-engine a portion of the U.S. tanker fleet, the KC-135, with its new CFM56 engine. While this powerplant features a core from GE’s F101 military engine, the real advantages conveyed by the re-engining program had more to do with better performance, lower fuel consumption and better noise characteristics. This prolonged the life of many KC-135s considerably. In 2013, the first operational KC-135R was retired, although in fairness, it needs to be pointed out that the aircraft was over 50 years old.

A similar program did not develop for the civil 707 airliner. The DC-8, however, proved to be another, and more favorable matter. In the mid-1960s, Douglas had introduced two models of a “stretched” version of the DC-8, the -61 and -63. These had better economic characteristics than the older models of the aircraft, and the “Super 63” (along with the more modestly-stretched -62) had considerably more range than their predecessors. United signed up to convert 30 dash 61s; Delta also converted its smaller fleet of the same type to the new -71 standard, with the first aircraft entering service in 1982. Interestingly, this gave the DC-8 the distinction of being the only major non-widebody type to have extensive operations with engines from three manufacturers: Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce, in addition to CFM.

Many DC-8-70s were given a new lease on life via conversion to freighters. United Parcel Service (UPS) became a particularly prolific operator, with over 40 of these aircraft in its fleet at one point. The last UPS DC-8 was retired in May 2009, and only a relatively small number of DC-8s are still in service (the last new delivery of a DC-8 was in 1972, to SAS).

So how has this turned out, to date? In 2008, the partnership was renewed through 2040, which provides at least a hint. Certainly its exclusive position on the 737, and strong market share on the A320 family provide further strong evidence of success. An excellent summary is provided by our colleagues at Penton’s Aviation Week in their October 13 issue:

Even in their most optimistic dreams, the founders of CFM International could never have guessed in 1974 the company would be marking its 40th anniversary by delivering the 27,000th CFM56, let alone starting flight tests of the Leap successor engine.

At the time, CFM optimistically predicted as many as 3,000 engines would be built and sold by the 10th year of production. The forecast reasonably assumed a 40% market share, but turned out to be very wrong in most respects. Had its production trajectory been correct, CFM would be marking its 12,000th delivery around now—far less than half the actual number achieved.

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