Aviation ‘wonders of the world’

By Natasha McKenty | August 13, 2021

Estimated reading time 16 minutes, 59 seconds.

Skies rounded up some of the impressive and lesser-known testing and manufacturing installations in the aviation industry.

GE Aviation Winnipeg Testing, Research and Development Centre

GE Photo

Back in 2012, General Electric (GE) unveiled its Testing, Research and Development Centre (TRDC), located at the James Richardson International Airport in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The ambition was to construct a “state-of-the-art facility” designed to be an aircraft test center for hazards causing the potential loss of an engine blade, as well as “develop advanced testing methodologies and equipment for GE Aviation’s aircraft engines.”

The center was first designed to “test gas turbine engines up to 150 inches in diameter and up to 150,000 lbs of thrust,” and boasts an advanced noise reduction classification with “50-foot-high noise attenuation walls, 16-foot diameter augmentor tube, and [a] 51-foot-high exhaust stack.”

Initially hosting ice certification testing, cold-start testing, and bird ingestion on GE’s jet engines, the facility underwent an expansion project in 2015 to include an ice certification test site for the GE9X engine, which will power the Boeing 777X aircraft. In addition, to facilitate the GE9X, an 11-fan wind tunnel “40-50 percent bigger than the original seven fan unit” was added to the site. 

The upgraded 122,000-square-foot facility was unveiled in 2018, bringing the total investments in the facility to $75 million. 

According to Elyse Allan, former president and CEO of GE Canada, Winnipeg was chosen for the location due to its climate, “a natural choice for icing certification testing.”  

“The TRDC has played a significant role in the development and certification of GE Aviation’s GEnx and Passport engines, CFM’s LEAP engine and GE Honda’s HF120 engine,” Benito Trevino, general manager of engine testing programs at GE, said in a statement.

A translating wind tunnel facilitates testing in other areas such as performance and endurance testing, ice crystal, and mixed-phase testing.

Peebles Test Operation

Icing and ice cloud testing

GE Aviation’s Peebles Test Operation is a jet engine test operations site in Peebles, Ohio. Here, GE90, GEnx, GE9X, and LEAP engines are tested for resiliency in situations such as flying into a hailstorm or dust cloud, or experiencing a bird ingestion. 

Located near the Appalachian Mountains, the 7,000-acre center boasts 11 different test sites. In 2014, GE celebrated 60 years of operation with a $40 million upgrade: an indoor jet engine test facility.

In 1954, the facility debuted as a GE rocket engine test center, until 1965 when the site became a certification testing site for the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy military transport aircraft TF39 engine. Today, it has seven outdoor and four indoor test sites, and nearly 400 employees. 

Of the 11 sites are a large-engine production building for the final assembly of the GE90 and GEnx engines, an outdoor commercial and military engine test stand (capable of testing engines with conventional take-off and landing and short take-off and vertical landing configurations), and two indoor test facilities that accommodate large commercial engines like the GE90 and GEnx.

Lead test engineer at GE Aviation, Kelly Dunham, said, “Before an engine is certified for flight, it goes through rigorous testing. The outdoor test stands allow simulation of everything from hail storms to bird strikes.

Brian DeBruin, former plant manager of Peebles Test Operation, said he and his team “set off small explosions inside jet engines to simulate blade failure. Some of these tests are relatively benign, but others are quite damaging.” 

NASA Vertical Motion Simulator

NASA’s Vertical Motion Simulator (VMS) is a key element in”the design of new and experimental aircraft.” Without leaving Earth, the VMS is a primary tool utilized for realistically sending people to the Moon. The world’s largest motion flight simulator is a safe and cost-effective tool, uniquely replicating the experience of actually landing on the Moon. 

The VMS, according to NASA, serves primarily as “a research simulator, where designers can test out their ideas and optimize the performance of aircraft and spacecraft,” providing the closest Moon landing experience while here on Earth. 

The sim resides at NASA’s Ames Research Center, located in Silicon Valley, California. During simulation, the VMS uses exchangeable cabs; each can recreate the cockpit of any existing or yet-to-be-designed aircraft. The motion sim can move in six directions – emulating the directions an airplane can move: forward/backward, up/down, and left/right – including the movement of the nose, pitching up, down, and side to side. As it simulates flight actions, the VMS can rise 60 feet vertically and 40 feet horizontally, emulating takeoff, cruise, and landing.

The interior is laid out similar to the Apollo Lunar Module, but since the cabs are reconfigurable, the sim can be transformed for various hi-fi flight training scenarios – including fixed-wing aircraft, such as NASA’s first large-scale, piloted X-plane, the X-59 Quiet Supersonic Technology aircraft.

The simulator is used for every facet of lunar landing training – from evaluation of flight control systems to the effectiveness of aircraft design and algorithms; after the initial training is completed, aerospace designers make evaluations for improvements.

McKinley Climatic Laboratory

F-117 on ice at McKinley Climatic Laboratory.

Home to the world’s largest climate chamber, the McKinley Climatic Laboratory (MCL) is located at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Its climate chambers can simulate harsh environmental conditions to test larger aircraft and engines, such as the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy, F-117 Nighthawk, F-22 Raptor, Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and Airbus A350. 

Often referred to as a “torture chamber” for aircraft, the testing chambers can simulate altitude (simulating 80,000 feet), sun’s heat, snow, wind, freezing rain, dust, and salt fog. As a result, testing at the MCL chambers is more cost-effective than “testing in the real world” while also proving reliable results. 

The climatic laboratory is host to five chambers; the (largest) main chamber is “approximately 252 feet wide, 260 feet deep, and 70 feet high” and can reach -65 F to 165 F. 

According to the Department of Defense, “environmental testing at the MCL is an essential step in establishing a proven military capability to meet our global commitments specifically stated in the National Defense Strategy (NDS). In addition, the results obtained from the vast array of aircraft and equipment tested at the MCL have been a major factor in maintaining the position of the United States as the world’s leading military power.”

In addition to the diversity of climatic testing capabilities, the MCL offers a testing capability called the Air Make-Up system, allowing the operation of the engines in various power settings — including full afterburner.      

Because of the magnitude of testing options offered at MCL, in addition to being used by the United States Air Force, “it is used by many foreign militaries and many commercial companies” from all over the world. 

NASA’s National Full-Scale Aerodynamics Complex 

The wind tunnels at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley are amongst two of the largest in the world – measuring 40 by 80 feet and 80 by 120 feet (the size of a football field standing on its edge). According to NASA, the U.S. Air Force-operated wind tunnels can accommodate wingspans of up to 100 feet, and mimic in-flight environments, allowing personnel to observe and measure an aircraft’s stability and performance. In addition, the complex provides an important safety check before jets ever reach the sky. 

The wind tunnels provide testing for both commercial and military aircraft and spacecraft.

Flight can be simulated at different speeds in The Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel’s two test sections: “at or near the speed of sound in the 11- by the 11-foot transonic wind tunnel and at higher velocities – up to about 2.5 times the speed of sound – in the 9- by 7-foot supersonic tunnel.”

Maureen Delgado, Wind Tunnel Operations Branch chief at NASA’s Ames Research Center, told Skies in a statement, “The [Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel] UPWT is a production wind tunnel facility that performs wind tunnel test entries for a diverse customer base with an average of one-third NASA, one-third military, and one-third commercial.”  

Air is drawn from outdoors as it passes through the test area, which is large enough to accommodate a Boeing 737 aircraft. Speeds max out at 115 miles per hour (velocities up to 100 knots) while moving through smaller sections at “speeds up to 345 miles per hour.” Six large fans with a 22,500-horsepower electric motor direct the airflow. 

“Recent tests have been in support of the Sierra Nevada Corp. Dream Chaser, NASA Space Launch System, and NASA Advanced Air Transport Technology (AATT) Project Transonic Truss Braced Wing,” said Delgado.

The tunnels are also utilized to test space flight technology, such as parachutes for Mars missions.

The National Research Council of Canada: 3 m x 6 m icing wind tunnel research facility

At the National Research Council’s (NRC) Aerospace Research Center, you’ll find the 3 m (wide) x 6 m (high) icing wind tunnel facility. Located in Ottawa, Canada, the operation is the only one in the world that can accommodate a “full-scale, full-speed, cold temperature” trials utilizing fluids – “ideal for large-scale, bluff-body aerodynamic investigations” including cable vibration testing.

The facility offers a controlled environment “to de-risk new and experimental products,” testing and evaluation of aeroacoustics, aerodynamics, icing formation exposure, and the study of the effects of icing on the performance of fixed-wing aircraft.

The “open-capacity design” of the building allows for the ability to take advantage of Canada’s coldest months as a natural environment for cold testing in the winter. This, coupled with the scope of the space, results in the ability to simulate icing conditions at a greater capacity than most wind tunnels. Larger water droplets, small droplets, and freezing rain are replicated in the facility. 

The wind tunnel’s test section simulates natural winds, and recent research has focused on “highly turbulent air wake.” 

According to the NRC, “the open-circuit layout with fan at entry” allows contaminents such as “heat, combustion products, wakes, jets, lost lubricants” to directly enter the testing environment without circulating – and liquids, such as anti-icing fluids are safely and responsibly disposed of thanks to the environmentally friendly drainage system.

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