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The Story of CFM International


CFM International, a 50/50 joint venture between Safran Aircraft Engines and General Electric, develops, produces and markets the CFM56 engine and its successor, the LEAP engine. A look back at the history of this cooperation, which dates back to the late 1960s.

Load test of a CFM56 model engine in a KC135 aircraft
CFM56-002 enigne on the tests bench at Evendale (General Electric)

Origin of the collaboration

While General Electric's military engine business for fighter jets was undeniably booming, the American company's ambitions were struggling to materialise in the civil sector. It was not until the late 1950s that GE made its first foray into this market.

On the other side, Snecma has been thinking since the mid-1960s about the best strategy for approaching the civil market with a new engine offering major performance gains in terms of fuel consumption and noise reduction, characteristics increasingly sought after by aircraft manufacturers and airlines.

In 1969, General Electric and Snecma began working together for the first time. Together with the German company MTU (Motoren-und-Turbinen-Union), the two companies produced parts for the CF6-50 engine powering the Airbus A300.

At the same time, and since the mid-1960s, Snecma began conducting a series of thermodynamic, aerodynamic and acoustic studies to establish the main characteristics of the M56 engine. Several objectives were set: low noise level, minimal fuel consumption, reduced maintenance and overall operating costs.

At the same time, the French government drew up its sixth five-year plan, defining the country's economic and industrial objectives for the period 1971-1975. The objectives of the French Aerospace Industry Committee converged with those of Snecma. The company and the government were well aware that the successful development of a 10-ton civil jet engine required international cooperation, for three main reasons. First, although Snecma was capable of developing advanced technologies, it lacked experience, particularly in the development of high-pressure turbines. It didn’t master the technology of variable stators, nor that of small fixed and mobile blades, required for the final high-load stages of the high-pressure compressor. Secondly, domestic sources of supply for high-temperature alloys and foundry and machining technologies for cooled high-pressure turbine blades were limited. Finally, as a specialist in military aircraft, Snecma had neither the sales organization nor the international presence needed to compete in the civil sector.

In 1971, Snecma was looking for a partner to develop, manufacture and sell the future CFM56 engine. The difficulties encountered by the Pratt & Whitney and Rolls Royce development programs quickly left General Electric as the only viable partner. A delegation comprising Snecma Chairman Jacques-Edouard Lamy, Sales Director Jean Crépin and Technical Director Michel Garnier travelled to Lynn, Massachusetts, in April 1970 to meet GE representatives. Gerhard Neumann (head of GE's Aircraft Engine Business Group) understood the scope of this new strategic opportunity in Europe and agreed to a 50/50 partnership.

Visit to General Electric (March 1974), René Ravaud and Gerhard Neumann face to face

First stages of the program

In January 1971, René Ravaud, director of programs and industrial affairs for the Ministry of Defense since 1965, replaced Jacques-Edouard Lamy as Chairman of Snecma. With his arrival, the new engine project gained momentum.

On March 25, 1971, the French Council of Ministers approved Snecma's 10-ton engine project. At the end of the year, official approval from the French government enabled Snecma to launch the first stage of the CFM56 engine program with General Electric.

On May 25, 1972, production of the first small-scale test components for the CFM56 began in the Prototype workshop of the Technical Department on the Villaroche plant. However, a political dispute with the US administration slowed progress on the project. The US administration prohibited the export to Europe of the Core Engine, for which GE was responsible. This decision posed serious uncertainties for the programme. After lengthy negotiations, and to allay American concerns about technology transfer, it was agreed that the assembly of the components and the initial tests would take place on GE's premises in Evendale (Ohio).

In June 1973, the Presidents of France and of the United States, Georges Pompidou and Richard Nixon, met in Reykjavik, Iceland, for the Franco-American summit. On the agenda was the signing of an agreement for the continuation of the CFM56 programme, based on the 1971 program.

Official creation of CFM International, Gerhard Neumann and René Ravaud

Creating CFM International

On January 24, 1974, as part of the development of the CFM56, Snecma and General Electric signed the final agreement governing the proposed joint venture. Although the company was already up and running, a number of legal and administrative formalities delayed its legal incorporation until September 1974. Named CFM International, this company under French law, with capital of 400,000 francs, created in equal shares by Snecma and General Electric, was responsible for managing the program and marketing the engines.

CFM's first CEO, Jean Sollier, chaired a ten-member board of directors, five from GE and five from Snecma, including two vice-presidents, Neumann and Ravaud. The two companies share design, development and production equally. Final assembly, sales and services are handled by each partner using its own resources.

The logo concept proposed by Jean Sollier, a mix of Snecma's red rectangle and GE's blue circle, and the engine name, which combines GE's civil engine nomenclature (CF for Commercial Fan) and Snecma's project name (M56), clearly illustrate the two companies' desire to work together.

Initial trials and certification

On June 20, 1974, the demonstration engine for the CFM56 program ran for the first time at Evendale on a test bench belonging to General Electric. In the days that followed, and in less than ten hours of operation, it reached its full take-off thrust of 10 tonnes. In November of the same year, the CFM56 carried out its first trial on a test bench at Villaroche.

Boeing was one of the first aircraft manufacturers to realise the full potential of the CFM56 engine. Boeing president Thornton Wilson contacted Neumann and Ravaud in 1977 with a proposal for an agreement to replace the engines of the 707 using the CFM56.

B707 flying test bench for engine CFM56

On March 17, 1977, flight testing of the CFM56 began on the Caravelle flying testbench. The first flight took place at Mérignac, near Bordeaux. It lasted just over three hours and was designed to assess the performance of the engine and nacelle. In January 1979, ground and flight tests reached a total of more than 4,000 hours.

Five years after the creation of the company, and eight years after the start of the project, any contract had yet to be signed by aircraft manufacturers. The French government threatened to put the programme on hold if no commercial application was found before spring 1979. In the United States, United Airlines finally decided in March 1979 to choose the CFM56 to replace the engines of the DC-8 cargo aircraft.

On November 8, 1979, the CFM56 was certified for a nominal thrust of 24,000 lb simultaneously by the DGAC (Direction Générale de l'Aviation Civile) in France and the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) in the United States. For the first time an engine has been certified jointly by the US agency and a European national agency. The CFM56 can now power commercial transport aircraft.

The CFM56 made its first commercial flight in April 1982 on a DC-8 Super 70 for Delta Airlines, on a route between Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia. In February 1987, Snecma achieved its initial goal of becoming a benchmark engine manufacturer for the new European twinjet, with the maiden flight of the CFM56-5-powered A320. In 1991, the 5,000th CFM56 was delivered to Airbus Industrie. The 10,000th CFM56 was delivered at the 1999 Paris Air Show.

CFM56-002 on the test bench at Villaroche
Delivery of the CFM56-002 engine to Villaroche in 1974
96894WN: Delivery of the CFM56-002 engine to Villaroche in 1974
96894WN: Delivery of the CFM56-002 engine to Villaroche in 1974
© Espace Patrimoine Safran
Delivery of the CFM56-002 engine to Villaroche in 1974
96923WN: Delivery of the CFM56-002 engine to Villaroche in 1974
96923WN: Delivery of the CFM56-002 engine to Villaroche in 1974
© Espace Patrimoine Safran
CFM56-002 engine
94600WN: CFM56-002
94600WN: CFM56-002
© Espace Patrimoine Safran
CFM56-002 engine on the test bench at Villaroche
96905WN: CFM56-002 engine on the test bench at Villaroche
96905WN: CFM56-002 engine on the test bench at Villaroche
© Espace Patrimoine Safran

The future of CFM

In the early 2000s, CFM launched a new cutting-edge technology programme: LEAP (Leading Edge Aviation Propulsion). At the beginning, no one knew what type of aircraft the engine would power, or when it would enter service. The first LEAP began ground testing at GE's Peebles (Ohio) facility in September 2013, then at Snecma’s plant in Villaroche the following year. The LEAP-1C is the first of the family to begin flight testing on a modified GE Boeing 747-100.

In 2021, the CFM International partnership has been renewed until 2050 and extended to include services.