Already the holder of several awards, Pres Henne retired this year after decades of success
Preston “Pres” Henne retired earlier this year after a 43-year career that left a mark on such disparate worlds as military transports, airliners and business jets. His engineering achievements have contributed pivotal advances in such wide-ranging fields as enhanced-vision avionics, subsonic aerofoils and supersonic aircraft designs.
Though he spent more than the first half of his career in key engineering and management roles at McDonnell Douglas, Henne’s legacy will likely be most remembered in posterity for a transformative, 18-year-long tenure at Gulfstream that ended with his retirement in March.
Gulfstream tapped Henne at a turning point in the company’s history. After creating a market for large-cabin, long-range business jets, Gulfstream faced a worthy new competitor in the mid-1990s. By then, Bombardier had already established the CL-600 Challenger as a major player in the midsize segment, and was launching a family of large-cabin jets called the Global series.
To meet this new threat, Savannah-based Gulfstream looked to the other side of the country to hire a manager who could deliver the GV jet on time. Henne had already established his engineering and programme management bona fides in a productive 25-year tenure with McDonnell Douglas.
This years winner, Pres Henne (right) receives his award from Flight International editor Murdo Morrison
In the mid-1980s, Henne shaped the unqiue aerofoil for the C-17 Globemaster III, a design that required unusual agility for a heavy-lift transport. Henne’s creativity and innovative style were on full display in the MD-11 programme. Not content with the performance of the ground-breaking super-critical aerofoil developed by NASA engineer Richard Whitcomb in the early 1970s, Henne and engineer Robert Gregg developed and patented a new design that they called a divergent trailing-edge aerofoil.
When it was necessary to deliver the MD-90 on time, McDonnell Douglas converted Henne from an engineer to a programme manager – and he was successful.
By 1994, McDonnell Douglas hardly resembled the military and commercial juggernaut of the 1950s and 1960s, and was only a few years away from being acquired by Boeing.
By September 1994, Henne had become senior vice-president of Gulfstream, taking over the GV’s certification phase from Sam Bruner, who had led the design effort. In a contemporary report, Flight International reported that Henne’s arrival at Gulfstream came at a key time. “Bringing the GV programme in on schedule is critical to Gulfstream, as the company’s major marketing advantage over the Global Express is the earlier availability of its long-range business jet.”
Henne would eventually play a leadership role in ushering in three generations of Gulfstream jets, including the GV, G450, G550 and, most recently G650. Henne also contributed to the re-design of the Galaxy-series jets that produced the G150 and G280.
Along the way, Henne oversaw Gulfstream’s transition to a three-axis fly-by-wire flight control system and the incorporation of advanced new cockpit features, such as the enhanced vision system/synthetic vision system (EVS/SVS) that reduced the minima for instrumented approaches to 100ft (30.3m).
Henne’s contributions have been duly recognised throughout his career by his peers in the aerospace industry. The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics has been perhaps the most effusive, honouring Henne with the 1996 engineer of the year award, the 2001 Hap Arnold award for excellence in aeronautical programme management and the Reed aeronautics award in 2012.
He has also been recognised by the University of Illinois, from which he graduated in 1969, with the alumni award for distinguished service. The National Aeronautics Association awarded the Collier Trophy to three aircraft associated with Henne’s engineering and management efforts: the C-17, GV and G550.
Henne is a fellow of the AIAA and a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society. Upon his retirement, US lawmaker Jack Kingston rose to honour Henne’s career on the floor of the US House of Representatives, for completing a “truly outstanding 44-year career”.
Yet, it is possible that elements of Henne’s most pioneering work remain hidden from public view, even three months beyond his retirement. The secretive P42 project, rumoured to be a G450/550 replacement, is expected to be formally launched later this year, and no doubt bears the stamp of Henne’s design and engineering style.
But Henne’s legacy on future Gulfstream programmes could extend even further. Several patents he has been awarded over the past several years concern advances in supersonic aircraft technology, especially in the area of high-speed inlets and sonic boom suppression. Gulfstream has revealed concepts for a supersonic aircraft called the “Whisper”. A formal launch of a supersonic business jet programme may still remain years away, but it will no doubt bear the mark of Henne’s vision – and a lasting tribute to his career in the aerospace industry.