USER REMEMBRANCES: Camaraderie, perhaps, best defines Western Turbine

Bill Caldwell

VP and director, 1990-1992

Although the official history of WTUI begins in 1991, the group actually started meeting in the late 1980s and Bill Caldwell was there from the beginning. “This whole thing started in Northern California as a result of deregulation. Cogeneration plants were going in and guys from a number of industries—airline, pulp and paper, oil and gas—had these new engines and were trying to figure out how to keep them running.

We were basically stumbling around trying to get our technical questions answered and to get and service parts. After a while, the guys down in Southern California heard about us and wanted to get involved. By around 1989-1990, we had reached a critical mass and we realized the industry was growing. It was time to get organized.”

The group may have had technical expertise, but running a volunteer organization wasn’t part of their skill set. “We didn’t know what we were doing. One guy had to figure out the bylaws, one guy took care of finances, and somebody else had to learn how to actually host a meeting. We relied a lot on our secretaries and support staff because they often knew more about that stuff than we did.” Bill was on the first Board of Directors and his company, Independent Power Associates Inc, has been involved since.

“As the maintenance team at the United Airlines cogeneration plant, we faced problems we could not have solved without the other WTUI members. At one point, we were having trouble with the fans used in the Stewart & Stevenson package and we had to turn to the other users to figure out how to resolve the problems.”

Getting to know new vendors was an added bonus to WTUI participation, Bill said. “With assistance from the other users and the new vendors, our group was able to apply lessons learned, improve reliability and increase our capacity and availability figures.” And that is what WTUI is all about.

Jack Dow

VP and director, 1994-1997; secretary 1998-2008

Gae Dow

Conference director, 1993-2008

Together, Jack and Gae Dow have put more hours into WTUI than they can count. It all started back in 1993 when Jim Hinrichs couldn’t attend a meeting and asked Jack to go in his place. The board was looking for a president and since Jim wasn’t there, Jack volunteered him. While Jim readily accepted the post, he decided to put Jack to work as well.

In the many years since that fateful meeting, Jack has served as a board member, an officer, a conference speaker, and, most importantly, exhibit organizer, lining up vendors and planning the exhibit hall. But one of the most important tasks he performed was getting Gae involved as conference planner.

“Jack took care of the exhibit hall, the floor plan, and the vendors while I took care of the hotel and attendees. Although Jack was working long days, he’d put in the extra hours on nights and weekends to get the exhibition planned and to help me with computer glitches or data entry. Every February, during pre-conference crunch time, we lived the conference 24/7. We talked about it morning, noon, and night.

“Sometimes my phone would ring at 3:00 in the morning with a call from an attendee from Japan or Australia and we’d need to deal with it,” Gae said. But it was always worth it, she added, because the “board and the officers were so wonderful and dedicated. They were the ones who really did all the work. All of them working 10-, 12-, 14-hr days and then putting in countless hours as WTUI volunteers.”

It was in Palm Springs at one of the early meetings that Gae saw firsthand the type of hard-working volunteers she was working with. “Attendance at the luncheon was much higher than we had expected and people kept pouring in to eat even though there were no seats left. So the board, sitting up front with reserved seats, gave up their table so others could use it. They spread out around the room, waving their arms to flag down attendees and making sure everyone got seated as chairs became empty. For those guys, the meeting was always all about the members.” Gae retired as conference director in 2008, saluted by the membership with a standing ovation.

Don Driskill

Secretary and director, 1993-1996; director, 2002-2005

Don Driskill’s history with WTUI goes back to the early days when the meetings consisted of just a few tables of users who talked over technical issues and toured LM2500 facilities. “The meetings were quite small,” Don recalled, “and unlike the packed exhibit hall we have today, there were very few vendors. Some of the vendors didn’t even bother with tables; they just walked around meeting and talking with users. We were a pretty unsophisticated bunch back then.” Unsophisticated or not, the group was full of smart, talented industry professionals many of whom have stayed active and connected to WTUI.

“It’s amazing to me that so many of the same people have remained in the industry over the years. They may have changed companies and they may have different business cards, but there’s a core group that is still around. In fact,” Don said, “we need the WTUI meetings just to maintain and update our industry contacts.”

For Don, it is the industry contacts that make WTUI such a valuable organization. “Being involved has impacted my business in so many ways. The sharing and openness as to what works and what doesn’t work have been absolutely invaluable to my business. The face-to-face contacts make that critical phone call so much easier—the phone call you have to make when you need to solve a problem or borrow a part.

It’s the network of people who have the same issues and concerns you have that gets you through the challenging times. People are always willing to help because they know tomorrow they could be in the same situation.”

Brian D Hulse

Director, 1993-1996

Looking back at the 25-yr history of WTUI and thinking about the organization’s amazing growth makes Brian Hulse smile. “From a small group, having an afternoon coffee klatch to becoming a globally recognized professional organization, it’s not often that an equipment users’ group can simultaneously grow and maintain focus on a single product line within one OEM’s array of offerings.”

Over the years, there have been a number of board and membership votes on bringing other gas turbines—both aeroderivatives and non-aeros—into the conference. Each time, the idea has been rejected and the spotlight has remained on the GE LM family of engines. “Keeping that intense focus, I believe, has kept the organization relevant and perpetuated the bond between it and the users. There is no mystery or ambiguity in what the organization is all about.”

By staying the course over the long haul, WTUI has become an industry constant. It is not just an annual conference, says Hulse, but it has become a user resource known worldwide for its openness and sharing of technical information. The WTUI web portal has been nurtured from a single landing page that talked about the group to a multi-layered site that supports user forums, buy-and-sell, a jobs board, and more—all in an easily accessible format that emphasizes usability.

“Being a board member in the early 1990’s was excellent experience for me, and I hope I was able to contribute to the success of WTUI in some small way. When designing what was to become the original WTUI logo, I was very conscious of the iconography (LM engine, lightning bolt signifying power, year of incorporation) and tried to portray a sense of gravitas. I think, over time, WTUI has wholly fulfilled its goals and more.” Hulse’s great contributions to both the development of WTUI’s image as well as its growth is undeniable.

Steve Johnson

VP, 1992-1995; director, 1992-1998

Steve started working with aeroderivative gas turbines in early 1975 when employed by Gas Turbine Corp—living in Venezuela and working extensively in Latin America for four years. In late 1979, he met Jim Hinrichs, then a young engineer, and they became forever friends.

In 1980, work began on the world’s first LM5000 cogen plant at Simpson Paper’s Shasta mill in Anderson, Calif. For the next 13 years, Steve was always there, “living and breathing every moment of that plant’s operating hours. Every day was a different day. There were many challenges.

“In the 13 years I was there we changed the engine about three-dozen times; we got so good at this, we could have the gas generator out in the turbine hall within four hours and get a lease engine reinstalled and ready to run 10 to 12 hours later.

We had every lease engine that GE ever had in its inventory installed at least once, a few several times. One month we actually had to install three lease engines; they didn’t last more than a week or so. One new LM5000 ran for only two hours. We were learning how to deal with the new problems and how to overcome them while maintaining 98.5% reliability and 96.5% availability all those years. Back then, GE’s support was superb.”

In fall 1983, donuts, coffee, and lunch brought together a group of users to discuss different issues and experiences. “We were the founding fathers of WTUI, way back then.” Steve wrote numerous and very detailed articles for the user organization, calling attention to issues with LM5000. He was an expert on the engine and served a 13-yr term as breakout session chair for LM5000.

In 2007, Steve launched SJ Turbine Inc, which now has a huge inventory of LM BOP parts and a worldwide client base. “We proudly have our booth at WTUI every year with my son Ray, a third-generation gas-turbine man.” With experience all across the Americas, Steve has been in the thick of it from the very beginning, working tirelessly to improve equipment operations and reliability.

Wayne Kawamoto

Treasurer, 1990-present; director and assistant secretary, 1990-1994

Wayne Kawamoto and LM2500s go way back—to the beginning, in fact. He was a young engineer when the first US Stewart & Stevenson package was installed in Hawaii, and he’s been working on LM2500s—and with WTUI—since. He became active in the organization in 1986, has served on the board of directors, and has been treasurer “since Day One” of incorporation in 1990.

As treasurer, Wayne has tracked the growth of the organization since its inception. “It’s amazing,” he said. “In the beginning, the highlight of our meeting was ordering lunch. Sometimes it was pizza and other times a sandwich. I’d take out my calculator and divide the bill among the 10 or 12 people present. That would be our membership costs for the day’s meeting.

“Now, our annual revenues are $700K-$800K. Our ‘luncheon bill’ is more than $380K. That’s a huge tab. At our first conference, we put out one 6-ft table and charged vendors around $40 to put their business cards on it. Now we’ve got 70,000 to 80,000 ft² dedicated to over 250 vendor booths. Our growth has just been tremendous.”

What accounts for the organization’s growth? “We started out trying to manage our issues outside of GE, and as the organization grew, our approach to problems became even more independent. We know the engine and we’ve got the experience in the field, so we began to develop and design our own solutions to the challenges we faced. If we need something more rugged and we can’t find it, we’ll design the components ourselves.

“People may join thinking they’re going to find out how GE wants them to use the turbine, but that’s not what we’re about. We’re about solving problems the best way possible based on GE’s technical expertise and operating experiences from the field. In the end, it’s our members’ design solutions that work best.” Wayne said that while WTUI may have started out like a stubborn weed, it’s been nurtured into an incredibly robust, fruitful plant that has given back to everyone who has participated.

Jon Kimble

Director, 2004-2007; president, 2008-2013

In the early 1990s, I was assigned a project to gather what information I could about operating and maintaining LM2500 packages. Wellhead was considering repowering an existing plant with a new prime mover and we were just starting the background work. The manager I worked for recommended I attend the Western Turbine Users conference.

I knew very little about GE machines. But I only had to attend one WTUI meeting to realize, if you wanted to learn something practical about these engines, this is one of the places you came. Not only did you get no-nonsense, real-world info about what you’d face if you acquired one of these plants, the people you met were so nice, enthusiastic, helpful, and friendly. I was very impressed.

As the repowering project advanced, our group continued to attend WTUI conferences because we needed the information, appreciated the value of the discussions and technical presentations, and required access to industry vendors. WTUI became a trip we looked forward to every year because there is camaraderie in this group that is quite special. And it’s fun.

Upon reflection, I’ll say that the mission WTUI undertakes to offer a low-cost conference to the members in a pleasant venue, while ensuring the information presented to the users is relevant and timely, is challenging. Thankfully, the depots and the chairs of the breakout sessions mount a highly coordinated effort each year to assemble and organize the technical content. Their efforts are outstanding.

Of late, GE has elected to send an advance staff of product managers and engineers that really enhance the exchange. The product and services providers that attend the conference, participate in the exhibit hall, and generously sponsor the activities, continually express their appreciation for the opportunity to meet directly with their customers. The member feedback is, far and away, always positive.

WTUI membership continues to grow—a clear testament to the quality of both GE’s power products and the conference program. During my term as president, sometimes we felt our conferences were successful, other times we weren’t so sure, but we always tried hard. Of course, you can’t do something like this alone, and the WTUI officers and directors, session chairs, and support personnel are first-rate and get along really well.

I always got a shot-in-the-arm just being around them. It is quite something to be a part of steering this group. Like most service organizations, you really do get more out of it than you put in. It’s truly by and for the users. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about LM engines.

“Hello!” to all my old friends and “Welcome!” to all the first-timers. Congratulations to WTUI for 25 years of great service. Good luck and continued success.

Ronnie McCray

Director, 2001-2002

Ronnie McCray got his start in WTUI in 1992 while working for Stewart & Stevenson at Sunlaw Energy in California. At the time, information about LM2500s was scarce and problem-solving consisted of kicking around possible solutions with other operators.

“One of Sunlaw Energy’s LM2500s tripped during summer peak because of a malfunctioning fuel valve; the plant had no spare. Contractual obligations dictated that the unit be returned to service quickly.

Plant Manager Gene Kelley called a Shell facility in Bakersfield which allowed Sunlaw to borrow a valve because their LM2500 had been removed for repair. Gene chartered a helicopter and flew to Bakersfield to pick up Shell’s fuel valve. The helicopter landed in the parking lot of our plant, the valve was installed, and the unit returned to service. We were able to refurbish our unit and send Shell’s valve back before their LM2500 left the depot. We couldn’t have done it without being connected.”

When an LM2500 in Artesia, Calif, had a C-sump high-oil-temperature indication, it was Ronnie who answered the call for help. High oil pressure and temperature indicated

a restricted oil-supply orifice. Plant Manager Doug Dowd had analyzed the information and asked if there was anything that could be done short of removing the engine for repairs. Ronnie went to the site with a vacuum pump, disconnected the C-sump oil-pressure line, connected the vacuum and 20 minutes later the unit was returned to normal operation.

As Ronnie puts it, “Participation in WTUI is invaluable. The camaraderie of the entire group, the ease with which the whole group welcomes new members, and how everyone is willing to share operational knowledge enhances one’s own knowledge and experience in this industry and it makes you more qualified to do your job.”

Frank Oldread

Director, 1999-2002

The first WTUI meeting Frank Oldread was scheduled to attend, he had to miss—ironically—because of an engine failure at his plant. Since then, he’s only missed one other time and that was because he was stuck in Shanghai during the SARS epidemic. Since his first meeting, Frank has worked with the same group of plants, which have had five different owners and six different names.

“I’ve attended a lot of meetings,” Frank said, “but one of my fondest memories was at a meeting in Las Vegas when Gae hired a couple of show girls to act as greeters. Needless to say, there was a lot of greeting going on.” According to Frank, the key to WTUI’s success is the contacts. “You can always find somebody who has already seen the problem you’re dealing with. With WTUI, it comes down to people and communications.”

Sometimes, though, sharing information isn’t enough and you actually have to share parts. “We’ve got 12 operating units in California and two spare engines, so we end up sharing parts at least three or four times a year and we’ve done it with probably a dozen different companies—including competitors.”

The camaraderie even among stiff competitors is yet another thing that sets WTUI apart. “I saw a customer approach a depot rep with a problem. They talked for a few minutes and then the rep walked the customer over to another depot’s booth to find out if they’d had encountered the problem.”

When asked about the group’s growth, he said, “At a conference in the mid-1990s, there were six vendors and eight or nine guys in the LM6000 room. Last conference, I stopped in to the LM6000 breakout session—it was in an auditorium with well over 100 people.” Frank predicts that as long as there are engineers trying to keep engines running, WTUI is going to keep on going and growing.

Mike Raaker

Director, 1994-1997; VP, 2002-2010; historian/ambassador, 2011-present

Charlene Raaker

Conference director, 2009-present

“What the heck is ‘Wah Tue eee’?” That’s a question Mike and Charlene Raaker have been answering for the past 20 years. The term Western Turbine Users (WTU) actually was coined by GE when referring to a group of folks on the West Coast who owned and operated LM2500 cogeneration packages. The “I” was added to the mix in 1990 when the group incorporated and became Western Turbine Users Inc. And the rest is history—a good history with constant growth and good friends.

“As part a small volunteer organization in the 1980s,” Mike said, “Charlene and I used up many of our frequent flyer miles, traveling back and forth from Cincinnati to attend the gatherings—first in plant conference rooms, then in hotel conference rooms, and finally, where we are today, filling huge hotels and conference centers, in all the warm cities on the West Coast.” 

The growth of the organization wasn’t envisioned or planned; it just happened. As Mike and Charlene put it, “The organization was, and is, about the owner/operator and keeping our plants viable, and we have never wavered from that goal.”

“We’re sure the growth was helped along by the fact that meetings are held in March in a warm climate and they open with a round of golf. Plus, spouses eat free. The friendships made during the past 30 years are too many to count and our space here is limited, so we won’t try.” Even when Mike and Charlene retire—don’t worry, they are not going away anytime soon—if you need to call WTUI one of them will answer the phone: They are both very proud to be Wah Tue eees.

Ernie Soczka

Chairman of the board, 1990-1993

“Ya’ll come.” That was as formal an invitation as the original group of LM2500 users got, according to Ernie Soczka, the first chairman of the board. “John Tunks was president,” Ernie recalled, “and Steve Johnson was there at the beginning, too.

“At the time, we were trying to solve problems by exchanging information about the LM2500’s technical issues and about working with GE and Stewart & Stevenson. We wanted to make sure we knew who was having what problems and figured that we could more effectively solve them and work with the OEM and packager if we worked together instead of one on one.”

During the early days, Steve Johnson would charter a plane, pick up Ernie on the way and they’d fly down to meet with John Tunks and Wayne Kawamoto and a few of the other early participants. They elected officers and set up their first official meeting. The first meeting sponsored by WTUI as an organization was in Sacramento. We were nervous because we had to pay to guarantee the rooms and we wondered if enough people would show up. We planned for 100 and ended up with 120.”

One of Ernie’s favorite memories of WTUI was when he played his first-ever game of “business tennis” with Jim Hinrichs. Asked what he missed about being involved with the group, he said, “I miss the technical problem-solving. Because the LM2500s were designed for aircraft, they’re very light and so we’d encounter problems you couldn’t anticipate. For instance, brackets would break on the casing and so we’d replace those with brackets we’d make out of heaver material only to see them place increased stress on the casing itself.

“It was a great technical challenge figuring those things out. And, of course, I miss the people. There was always such an excitement, an eagerness, and camaraderie to put our heads together to solve problems and make a difference.” With the strong foundation Ernie helped build, WTUI is sure to keep making a difference well into the future.

John Tunks

President and director, 1990-1992

John identified early on with the small, informal association of folks that would later incorporate as WTUI. “In the late 1980’s, I found myself in the cogen trade and began to participate in the group’s periodic information-sharing get-togethers.” As manager of Stewart & Stevenson Services’ West Coast O&M group, he certainly had a lot to contribute. The early meetings started with a handful of operators and some of GE’s product support people, but it quickly grew.

“In the few years I worked on the West Coast, the gatherings seemed to have legs that kept growing and growing.” The organizing participants of the group realized that with the incredible growth they were seeing, there needed to be a more formal means of managing their activities. And thus began the incorporation of the Western Turbine Users.

John worked with one of the lawyers at the firm Thelen Marrin, who volunteered his services to develop the WTUI Articles of Incorporation. “The officers were elected and I found myself in the newly created position of president. While this new, more formal organization came to be, we still had a great time putting together our primary mission which was the annual conference.”

“The last of these conferences I attended was held in Monterey, Calif. We were sweating about having enough participants to meet the quota required by the hotel.” As it turned out, there was a great turnout and the attendees enjoyed remarkably pleasant weather for the golf tournament planned for the conference.

The Monterey conference is memorable to John for more reasons than just the weather, though. “It was held at the time the Rodney King verdict was announced. My memory of driving back to LA and coming over the mountain to see the pillars of smoke from the fires the rioters had set was eerie and disturbing. Not long after that I left Stewart & Stevenson to begin my quest to build a boat and sail around the world, but that’s a story for another day.”

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