Sixty years ago, the simple act of a child playing with a rubber band-powered toy airplane was the genesis of an aviation career that resulted in Collier Trophy-winning aircraft, industry-changing innovations and an extraordinary vision for the future of supersonic flight.
That young boy was Preston A. (Pres) Henne, who grew up to literally become a Living Legend of Aviation, earning that distinction in 2012. His lifelong body of work, including wing and aircraft designs, patents, publications and national speaking engagements, has been recognized by numerous organizations, earning him an impressive list of awards. Henne retired from Gulfstream this spring as senior vice president, Programs, Engineering and Test, leaving behind major contributions to aeronautics, an engineering foundation at Gulfstream that will continue to build upon his legacy, and a fascinating story.
Always About Aircraft
Lucky is the person who recognizes at an early age the passion that will guide his life. For Henne, it was always about wings and aircraft—the ability to lift up and above the limits of the earth. The man whose genius would guide the development of six Gulfstream aircraft, including the G650, created his first model out of balsa wood, glue and a rubber band.
“When I was about 5 my dad and I built a little toy airplane that I had received as a birthday gift,” Henne fondly recalls, breaking into one of his characteristic grins. “You wound it up and threw it and the rubber band just kept it going for a while. I can remember my thoughts when I first started flying that model airplane around and how excited I was. This was different than just throwing a ball some place. This thing stayed in the air; it was a machine that flies. That was pretty cool stuff.”
Henne’s delight at discovering flight would never end. Early photographs depict a child who obviously loved everything about aircraft. His sweet smile and pride as he shows off successively larger and more elaborate model airplanes document a growing love of aviation.
“Once we built the first one, I just kept making airplanes as a kid,” says Henne. “I advanced to ‘U’ controlled models. They had two cables that went to the airplane and controlled the pitch. They had motors in them and cables, so you went in a circle. You were limited to a hemisphere in terms of where you put the airplane.”
Henne, however, was realizing that his passion for aircraft was limitless.
1960 was the year that 13-year-old Henne crystallized his future career in aviation. He was continuing to build airplane models and would fly them in the empty field across the street from his family’s home west of Chicago. His parents often sat on the front porch watching him, and one day his father had an insight about his son’s future.
“My dad said, ‘You know, you ought to be an aeronautical engineer.’ I remember that conversation we had, sitting on the front steps, and thinking ‘Aha—an aeronautical engineer!’ I listened to my dad, went that direction, and never looked back. I’ve been on that same path ever since,” Henne says.
College, First Flight and the C-17
Henne had determined where he wanted his future to go; now he had to develop a strategy to get there. The beginning step was college. Henne stayed close to home, earning a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering with highest undergraduate honors from the University of Illinois in 1969. He would later receive a master’s degree in engineering in 1974 from California State University in Long Beach.
Amazingly, Henne had never flown in an aircraft before he committed himself to a career in aviation. Henne’s first flight would occur during his freshman year in college, when he went to a local airport in Aurora, Illinois, and asked the instructor at the airport’s small FBO what it would cost to go up in the air for an hour.
“One of the things you could do as part of the aeronautical engineering curriculum was to obtain your private pilot’s license,” Henne remembers. “Being the conservative person that I am, I needed to find out if this was something I liked. So I paid a guy who rented airplanes $30 and we went out and flew for an hour. And it was fantastic!
“You left the ground. You’re flying. It’s this machine and it flies. It’s not like a ball that you throw and it clumps. It flies. It was incredibly fun, so I said, ‘I can do this,’ and made earning a pilot certificate part of my curriculum at Illinois.”
Upon graduation, Henne’s career took flight when he joined McDonnell Douglas in 1969. Always fascinated by wings, Henne found it professionally and personally exhilarating when he became responsible for the aerodynamic design of the wing on the C-17, considered the most versatile aircraft in airlift history and winner of the 1994 Collier Trophy, aviation’s most prestigious award.
“Doing the wing design on the C-17 was great, and probably my technological claim to fame,” says Henne. “Following that, the final thing I did at McDonnell Douglas was serve as program manager for the MD-90. We took the airplane from the initial concept through the whole design, development and certification. That was fantastic. It was the best job I had at McDonnell Douglas.”
Gulfstream Comes Calling
For Henne, his accomplishments at McDonnell Douglas were the culmination of his career. Or so he thought.
“If my career had stopped at that point, I would have been completely satisfied,” remembers Henne.
But aviation had other plans for this extraordinary engineer.
As Henne was completing work on the MD-90, he received a call from Tom Bell, Gulfstream’s vice chairman at the time.
“Tom said they were getting ready to launch this thing called the GV and were looking for a program manager, and how would I like to come work for Gulfstream? Well, I didn’t know what a GV was, but I knew what a GIV was, so I told him, ‘Let’s talk.’”
Henne went home that day and saw the most recent issue of Fortune magazine had arrived in the mail. On the cover was Teddy Forstmann, whose company had acquired Gulfstream in 1990.
“I saw that picture and thought, ‘What kind of sign is this?!’ So I read the article and decided I really needed to talk some more to Tom,” recalls Henne, who eventually made the decision to join Gulfstream in 1994.
“When Tom said they were looking for a program manager, I was very excited. I had done one aircraft program at McDonnell Douglas from start to finish, and how many people get to do that?” says Henne. “Now I had a chance to do it again. That was the draw. So I came to Gulfstream and led the GV through the same process.”
Henne’s career at Gulfstream would prove to be monumental. He is credited with leading the team responsible for the design, development, test and certification of the GV, which was awarded the 1997 Collier Trophy. As senior vice president of Programs, Engineering and Test, Henne oversaw Gulfstream’s product program management, engineering and flight operations. His organization led the development of the G550—which was recognized with the Collier Trophy in 2003—the G450 and the G150. Next, developed in parallel, were the G280, Gulfstream’s all-new super-midsize aircraft; and the ultralarge-cabin, ultralong-range G650, the company’s newest flagship and the fastest certified civilian aircraft in the world. In an impressive aeronautical accomplishment, both the G280 and G650 entered into service at the end of 2012, just weeks apart.
Sound Barrier Buster
Henne’s love for aviation is legendary, but a special spark lights up his eyes when the conversation turns to what lies ahead for supersonic flight. In addition to directing the development of all of Gulfstream’s aircraft from the GV to today, Henne is the driving force behind the company’s supersonic research. He is one of the inventors of the company’s patented Quiet Spike™, and he supported the successful flight test and validation of this low-boom technology in collaboration with NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). This testing helped to demonstrate its viability for business aircraft to fly supersonic over land and populated areas.
“My passion for supersonic flight is based on the fact that aeronautics and aviation—with the exception of the Concorde, which is no longer in service—have been stuck flying subsonic since jets started,” explains Henne. “Forty years ago we were flying nearly as fast as we are today, with the exception of the G650. We need to take the next step and increase travel speed by a factor of two at least. That would be a significant change in aviation.”
According to Henne, the ability to double the speed of flight would have an enormous impact on the world.
“Just think about the possibilities if you could travel some place at twice the speed or half the time,” says Henne. “You could send a package from the East Coast of the U.S. to the West Coast and—based on local clock time—it would arrive on the West Coast before it left the East Coast. It would change everything. It would change the world.”
So who will be the company to develop and implement this world-changing technology? Henne firmly believes the answer is Gulfstream.
“I think Gulfstream is in a unique position to make it happen. We have the market, the correct product size, and some really smart people. If anybody can do it, we can do it,” he says.
Henne’s love for aviation is legendary, but a special spark lights up his eyes when the conversation turns to what lies ahead for supersonic flight.
Mementos and Memories
As March drew to a close, the time had come for Henne to pack his office and make room for his successor. Before the boxes began to fill, a request to take one last tour of his office was graciously granted.
Exploring someone’s office is somewhat like an archeological dig—you uncover pieces of history and artifacts that reveal the personality and passions of the inhabitant. The first notable thing about Henne’s office was what was missing. There was no “trophy” wall displaying past triumphs—no diplomas, statues, certificates or other detritus of a highly recognized professional life. It’s not that Henne hasn’t earned them; it’s simply that he is a humble man who has always minimized his own contributions while making certain to recognize the efforts and successes of the team, a trait that has elicited deep respect, admiration and loyalty from his colleagues.
Despite the lack of trophies, there were still plenty of items on view. Reflecting his nearly half century in the industry, Henne possesses an almost museum-like eclectic collection of memorabilia. Neatly displayed—and in chronological order— were models of aircraft Henne had a part in developing: the C-17, GV, GV-SP, G550, G280 and G650. Plexiglass blocks housed tiny pieces from production milestones, including machining chips from the GV and wood interior chips from the G550. Gulfstream’s FAA, EASA and other aircraft type certificates, along with stunning photographs of Gulfstream aircraft, were framed and mounted on the walls. Coffee mugs were scattered about and, somewhat whimsical for an engineer, a display of stuffed animals.
“I enjoy the online game Angry Birds, so people started to give me those stuffed characters,” Henne explained. “The ‘Mighty Eagle’ represents my interest in eagles—and one of the game’s biggest effects.”
Henne’s fascination with eagles—and all birds’ wings—was apparent by the photos directly above his desk. The expectation would be images of aircraft, but instead they were photographs of birds in flight, with magnificent wingspans.
“Wings are beautiful things,” says Henne. “I have always been fascinated by wings because they are fundamental to the aircraft; obviously the key to flight is the wings. From the C-17 on, wing technology has always been a thrill for me. Although I don’t have favorites, the G650 wing is especially elegant.”
Reflecting his nearly half century in the industry, Henne possesses an almost museum-like eclectic collection of memorabilia.
Family Leads the Future
Closest to Henne’s desk, and his heart, were family photos. Graduations, weddings, fun times—all captured in images lovingly and proudly displayed.
“Connie and I married in 1969. I give all the credit to Connie for our happy marriage and wonderful kids. She always believed in me, supported me, and really raised our three children,” says Henne. “Our son, Matt, is a firefighter who lives with his wife Lauren in Bluffton, South Carolina. Our two daughters and sons-in-law, Lauren and Steve Hinton, and Alexis and Alex Barber, live in Southern California.”
When considering retirement, it was thoughts of the future that led Henne to let go of the past.
“The week I decided to retire was right before the Christmas holiday,” recalls Henne. “The G280 and G650 had just entered service and I thought that was a great milestone and a wonderful time to leave. What clinched the deal was the news that our older daughter was pregnant—our first grandchild.”
No doubt Henne will be as active in retirement as when he worked at Gulfstream. Henne is a serious snow skier and amateur winemaker, and plans to continue to learn the wine craft and hone his fermentation skills. Other pleasures are working on his collection of Corvettes and traveling—with a trip to Italy already under consideration. Certainly there will be many opportunities for Henne to continue to participate in the world of aviation that he loves.
And perhaps, one day, Henne and his wife will be able to travel to California to visit their grandchild on a supersonic jet—arriving on the West Coast before they even left their East Coast home.
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