GE Engineer, Hush Hush Boys Speaks On Top Secret
Jet Engine Program
July 17, 2012 - Jet travel is second nature to
us, but not too long ago the Jet Age was a top
secret project that fit inside a drab concrete
workshop on a back factory lot outside Boston,
Massachusetts. In 1942, exactly 70 years ago, a
handful of GE engineers working non-stop for ten
months built America’s first jet engine.
Their mission was to win the war, but they ended
up shrinking the world. “They called us the
Hush-Hush Boys,” says Joseph Sorota, who is 93
and one of the last living veterans of the
Sorota was a 20-year old engineering graduate
from Northeastern University when he joined the
program as employee No. 5. He had been hired by
GE’s plant in Lynn River, Massachusetts, to
build advanced propeller engines for
high-altitude bombers flying missions over
Europe and the Pacific.
“One day I got called into the main office,”
Sorota says. “There was a man I had never met
who asked me what I did on the way home, who I
talked to, and whether I stopped at the bar.
When he identified himself as a man from the
FBI, I almost died. I didn’t do anything wrong
but I thought he was there maybe to arrest me.
It was the war.”
After the interrogation, the man told Sorota to
follow another stranger to a small building at
the back of Lynn River’s industrial lot. “They
told me that this was where I was going to
work,” Sorota says. “The FBI man warned me that
if I gave away any secrets, the penalty was
death. That’s the way he said it. He was
When Sorota first entered the structure, “there
was nothing going on at all,” he says. “It was
just a plain concrete building.” But that soon
changed. In September 1941, his new team
received a present from England, one of the
world’s first jet engines developed by British
Royal Air Force officer Sir Frank Whittle.
Because of GE’s extensive experience with
engines, turbines and high-temperature alloys,
the Air Force picked GE to improve on Whittle’s
design and build America’s first jet engine.
Whittle is recognized as the inventor of the jet
engine, along with Germany’s Hans von Ohain.
They developed their first prototypes
independently in war-torn Europe the late 1930s.
They did not meet in person until 1966. Whittle
was knighted for his work on the jet engine.
Sorota and his teammates first had to fix their
workshop. “The work was top secret, we couldn’t call in
the maintenance department,” he says. “I was knocking
down walls with a jackhammer when we had to make more
room for a test chamber.”
When they unpacked
Whittle’s engine, new problems popped up. “We didn’t
have the right tools,” he says. “Our tools didn’t fit
the screws because they were on the metric system. We
had to grind our tools open a little more to get
The teams, aided by Whittle’s blueprints and a
couple of British engineers, started working
non-stop. There were 15 people on Sorota’s
shift. He was building the engine’s air flow
design. Occasionally, he would take trips to
other secret sites and study engines salvaged
from German V-2 rocket bombs that were raining
In March 1942, just five months into the
project, the engineers wheeled their first
engine, called I-A, inside a concrete test cell
which they called “Fort Knox.” But it stalled.
“We could only run it for a short while,” Sorota
says. “We took it apart, assembled it, put it
together, and ran tests again. We went on with
designing. We designed a new compressor, and
that’s when we started to get some efficiency.”
In the summer of 1942, 10 months after they
started, GE shipped the first working jet
engines to the Muroc Army Air Field, in
California’s Mojave Desert. The Air Force
strapped them to Bell’s experimental XP-59
aircraft called Airacomet. On October 2, 1942,
it climbed to 6,000 feet.
The Bell P-59 Airacomet was the first American
jet fighter aircraft, designed and built during
World War II. The United States Army Air Forces
was not impressed by its performance and
cancelled the contract when fewer than half of
the aircraft ordered had been produced.
no P-59s went into combat, it paved the way for
another design generation of U.S.
turbojet-powered aircraft and was the first
turbojet fighter to have its turbojet engine and
inlet nacelles integrated within the main
Sorota did not see the maiden flight.
|Joseph Sorota, 93,
was one of the Hush-Hush Boys. He is one of the
last living veterans of the jet engine
busy at Lynn, perfecting the engines and
teaching Air Force mechanics to fix them inside
a public school, which the government
commandeered for that purpose.
1945, the Air Force told Sorota to put on a
uniform and travel to the Pacific with a
squadron of Lockheed’s P-80 Shooting Star
aircraft, the Air Force’s first real fighter
jets. The Shooting Star was powered by a brand
new GE jet engine and became the first U.S.
plane to break the 500 miles per hour barrier.
“They gave me papers showing that I was involved
in the service even though I was still a GE
employee,” Sorota says. “They said that if [the
Japanese] captured me without military papers,
they could say that I was a spy and I could be
But Sorota never left. Another
secret project ended the war. “They dropped the
bomb on Hiroshima and the war was over,” he
says. “I was looking forward to going. I was in
my twenties and all excited.”
The Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star was the first
jet fighter used operationally by the United
States Army Air Forces. Designed in 1943 and
delivered in just 143 days from the start of the
design process, production models were flying
but not ready for service by the end of World
War II. Designed with straight wings, the type
saw extensive combat in Korea with the United
States Air Force (USAF) as the F-80.
America's first successful turbojet-powered
combat aircraft, it helped usher in the "jet
age" in the USAF, but was outclassed with
the appearance of the swept-wing transonic
MiG-15 and quickly replaced in the air
superiority role by the North American F-86
Sabre. The F-94 Starfire, an all-weather
interceptor on the same airframe, also saw
Korean war service. The closely related T-33
Shooting Star trainer would remain in
service with the U.S. Air Force and Navy
until the 1970s and many still serve in a
military role or are in private hands.