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Computers flying Economy: new 747 test jet is a flying data machine

Computers flying Economy: new 747 test jet is a flying data machine

  • Europe
  • Some private jets come equipped with master bedrooms, Lalique crystal fittings and gold-plated seat belt buckles. GE’s new Boeing 747, on the other hand, carries almost 900 miles of wiring and fiber optic cable.
  • General Electrics

The plane, which arrived at GE’s Flight Test Operations center in Victorville, Calif., this week, will help technicians and engineers test next-generation jet engines like the LEAP, the GE9X, and the Passport. The wire and fiber optics will connect sensors embedded in the engines to rows of powerful computers inside the economy cabin and help crews analyze terabytes of complex industrial data in flight.

GE acquired the 20-year-old aircraft (pictured above) from Japan Airlines in late 2011 and spent the last 14 months puling out seats, rewiring the plane and installing state-of-the art avionics.

GE engineers also reinforced the wing structure, drilled new holes in the fuselage for extra cables and modified the wing leading edge around engine No. 2 (the engine on the left side closest to the body). The changes will allow them to attach to the wing any of the new engines that the company is developing, including the giant GE9X engine. With 132 inches in fan diameter, the GE9X is largest jet engine ever designed.

The fiber optic cable will stream digital data from some 1,700 instruments and sensors monitoring thrust, temperature, fuel consumption and other readings from the engine test to the airborne computers. They will analyze the information and display it to engineers and technicians on screens inside the aircraft. The crew will also monitor the engine visually from multiple video feeds.

The engineers will use the data to determine whether the engine meets performance goals. They will also use it to design new regimens for ground-based testing at GE’s other jet engine boot camps in Peebles and Evendale in Ohio and in Winnipeg, Canada.

The test jet landed in Victorville with four GE CF6 engines slung under wings, the same kind that powers Air Force One. The engines will allow the 747 to reach 45,000 feet, 30 percent above the average cruising level of passenger aircraft and 5,000 feet higher than GE’s older 747 flying test bed.

The new 747 will join GE’s original flying test best that GE acquired two decades ago. That plane, called Clipper Ocean Spray, was the 16th 747 ever built and flew for two decades in Pan Am colors.

The two planes will start working side by side this summer. “We are ramping up our resources in Victorville,” says Hsin-Yi Yen, GE’s engineering manager at the site. “It’s an amazing time to be here.”

The new generation of jet engines is giving a $144 billion lift to GE’s industrial performance. The company has $35 billion in orders and commitments for the GEnx engine, $26 billion (including service agreements) for the GE9X, and $83 billion for the LEAP engine, which is being developed by CFM International, a 50/50 joint venture between GE and France’s Snecma (Safran).

The LEAP will enter commercial service in 2016 and GE9X by 2020. But before that happens the new 747 test plane will have to get busy.

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