35 Years Old and Still Going: a Rolls-Royce Jet Engine’s Fascinating Story

Jul 29, 2019

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Jet engines may well be “the most fascinating machines ever made.” One of the most impressive things about them, besides the staggering amount of power they produce, is that they last a really, really long time: there are engines flying today dating back to the early 1960s, like those of the US Air Force’s B-52 bomber. Commercial airplanes, which fly a lot more than military ones, typically do not reach such extremes, but their engines routinely last three decades or more.

In fact, it’s not uncommon for engines to be older than the airplanes they are mounted on, since engines can be easily removed and swapped between planes.  If you have flown recently on a Boeing 757 with American Airlines, for example, you might have been pushed through the skies by a pair of Rolls-Royce engines probably older than yourself, and certainly older than your plane.

The company’s longest-serving engine on a passenger jet is an RB211 that was first installed on an aircraft in August 1984, according to a spokesperson for Rolls-Royce. These days it’s flying with American, hanging off the wing of a 757 — and according to the fleet-tracking site Planespotters, the airline’s oldest 757 was built in 1993.

That engine has almost 100,000 flying hours, which translates to 50 times to the Moon and back, or almost 10,000 cross-country flights in the US, Rolls says.

Because engines are by far the single most valuable part of a jet airplane, they are the first thing to be sold when one is taken out of service, and that means they often move among different airlines during their lifetime. This one flew first on an Eastern Air Lines 757, Rolls says, then was sold to America West Airlines in 1992 after Eastern went bust. America West’s 757s, and their engines with them, moved to US Airways when the two airlines merged in 2005. Then the engine moved in 2008 to American Airlines, where it remains.

AIRPORT PRINCESS JULIANA, SIMPSON BAY, GUADELOUPE - 2016/12/05: An American Airlines Boeing 757-200 seen landing at airport Princess Juliana just over Maho beach. (Photo by Fabrizio Gandolfo/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
An American Airlines Boeing 757, powered by two Rolls-Royce RB211 engines, landing at the famous SXM airport in Saint Maarten in 2016 (Photo by Fabrizio Gandolfo/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Jet engines can have fascinating histories. The absolute oldest RB211 flying today, a 1982 build powering a 757 with cargo carrier DHL Air UK, has been on 18 — yes, eighteen! — different aircraft, with Eastern and British Airways before DHL.

And that’s perfectly safe. Jet engines have become really, really reliable, spending tens of thousands of “hours on wing” — industry jargon meaning that an engine does not need to be removed for service and stays attached to the aircraft, needing just oil changes and tune-ups. That’s what you might see at the airport when mechanics are looking into an engine, like in the image below, showing an inspection of an RB211 with its covers open, on the wing of a Boeing 747.

The RB211 has achieved “40,000 hours on wing without removal,” Tim Boddy, Rolls-Royce’s Head of Marketing, Mature Large Engines, said.

Technician inspecting a Rolls-Royce RB211 jet engine (Image courtesy of Rolls Royce)
Technician inspecting a Rolls-Royce RB211 jet engine (Image courtesy of Rolls Royce)

Now, if only the engine in your car could last as long.

Featured photo of a Rolls-Royce RB211 by aviation-images.com/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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