"This is the coolest of the cool," says Brent Ostermann, the engineer in charge of babysitting the 6,000-kilogram jet engine affixed six metres above his head. The General Electric next-generation (GEnx) turbine was designed to be strapped to a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. But before it is, it must face the rigours of GE’s new aircraft testing centre in Winnipeg, a $50-million project operated by Arizona-based StandardAero.
The whole exercise begins with seven giant fans that draw in frigid Manitoba air and buffet the engine with winds of up to 104 kilometres per hour. Running alongside the fans are 125 nozzles, each of which sprays a fine mist of water onto the turbine, where it instantly freezes into an ice cloud. Once the turbine, the fans and the nozzles are fired up, the noise tops 100 decibels. Ostermann and his team of seven retreat to a nearby trailer to monitor the engine’s performance.
Ice can cause serious damage to jet engines, and each new series, like the GEnx, must go through a battery of tests in cold conditions before it can be certified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. General Electric used to do most of its evaluations at facilities in Peebles, Ohio, and Mirabel, Quebec. But logistics and the need for colder weather forced the company to look for a new locale. Where better than Winnipeg, which can almost guarantee the required -4 C to -20 C temperatures for this type of work.
And what happens when the weather warms up? There are other studies that need to be performed on GE’s engines, such as endurance evaluations and the coyly named "bird ingestion" test. This last one’s very important, says Ostermann, "if people are to be safe when they are flying."