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The General Electric GE9X turbofan (used on the 777X), unlike the vast majority of turbofans before it, did not undergo the traditional triple-redline test (where the engine is run for a prolonged period of time while simultaneously at redline EPR, redline temperature, and redline RPM), because it is, apparently, incapable of doing so except at high altitude:

... Before certification, final tests include a full durability block test, replacing the usual “triple redline” test at maximum temperatures, pressures and speeds, as modern high-bypass ratio engines cannot achieve all maximum conditions near sea level...

In contrast, the GE9X’s immediate predecessor, the GE90 (used on some first-generation and all second-generation_777s), did undergo triple-redline testing before entering service, and again before the release of the high-thrust variants used on second-generation 777s.1

One would expect, intuitively, that it would be easiest to achieve triple-redline conditions at sea level, as fuel and air flow (and, thus, RPM, EPR, and thrust) are highest in the dense low-altitude air,3 and the increased cooling from the additional airflow should be just about balanced by the increased heat generation from the additional fuel burned.4

What makes it impossible for very new turbofan designs to reach all three redlines simultaneously at sea level?


1: Setting a record for the highest thrust ever generated by a jet engine (569 kN, or 64 short tons for you Americans) in the process, which stood unbroken until it was eclipsed by a 597-kN (67.2-short-ton) GE9X test run in November 2017.2

2: Ironically, while the GE9X is larger and has a higher record thrust than the high-thrust GE90s, and is required to power an aircraft just as heavy (and soon to get much heavier still, with the 777-10) as those using the latter engine, its rated thrust is considerably lower (470 kN [52.5 short tons] versus 510 kN [57.5 short tons])!

3: Although not by very much, as the maximum thrust available from (and, thus, fuel and air consumed by and RPM and EPR attained by) a turbine engine remains nearly (although not completely) flat up to very high altitudes.

4: These effects would be even more pronounced on an actual aircraft than in a test stand, due to the higher thrust settings needed to counteract the increased drag from low-altitude flight and the increase in airflow through the engine (and, thus, in fuel flow, as well) resulting from the ram effect of the aircraft’s (and, thus, the engine’s) forward motion through the air.

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    $\begingroup$ My guess is, at sea level air is dense and the fan can not spin fast enough then LP turbine generates too much back pressure and chokes HP turbine. $\endgroup$ – user3528438 May 17 at 0:04
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    $\begingroup$ might it be to keep the chamber pressure on ground lower, giving a lighter engine? $\endgroup$ – Abdullah May 17 at 7:03
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    $\begingroup$ The engine has just one control. That is not sufficient to tune three different parameters. You need two more parameters. Those parameters are inlet pressure and velocity. That means the engine will hit all three redlines simultaneously only at specific altitude and speed—which might or might not be possible to simulate on the ground with testing equipment. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec May 18 at 8:28
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    $\begingroup$ @JanHudec what about variable-pitch stators? $\endgroup$ – pericynthion May 18 at 19:48
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    $\begingroup$ @pericynthion, variable guide vanes are not an independent control. They need to follow their schedule to maintain angle of attack on the rotor blades within working range and can't add much resistance to the engine. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec May 18 at 19:57
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What makes it impossible for very new turbofan designs to reach all three redlines simultaneously at sea level?

The implication in your question is that GE9X was not able to reach all three redlines simultaneously but that previous engines (e.g. GE90, GEnx, LEAP, etc) could. That is incorrect. Those engines could not reach triple redline either. At least not, type design unmodified. The engines that were used to demonstrate compliance to FAR 33.87 for those engine programs were modified from their type design in order to be able to reach triple redline. Very heavily modified.

To understand why, let's talk a little about engine performance. The three variables of N1, N2, and EGT are controlled by several conditions: the throttle setting, the ambient temperature, the ambient pressure (i.e. altitude), the forward velocity, and the deterioration of the engine (e.g. how worn out the seals are). Now, if we are doing this test on a test stand (as opposed to flying it), then we really only have control over one variable: the throttle. Everything else just is what it is. It shouldn't be too hard to see that you can't control 3 variables precisely with just one knob (E.g. imagine in your bathtub or shower you try to control both the water temperature and water flow rate with just one knob. You can't do it. To control 2 variables, you need 2 knobs).

More specifically, considering sea-level static conditions, if the ambient temperature is cold, then the air is dense, so the fan pumps a whole lot of mass with every revolution and makes a lot of thrust. You have to burn a lot of fuel to do that. So you'll hit EGT limit first before you get anywhere close to N1 redline. If the ambient temperature is hot, then the fan doesn't pump as much per revolution, so speed needs to be really high in order to make any kind of thrust. You'll hit N1 redline before you hit EGT redline. You can presume that there should be one magic temperature where you could hit both of those at the same time, but if you just sit around and wait until the weather hits the exact right temperature you wanted and stays there for 150 hours (the length of the test), you'll be waiting a long time. And even then, you still won't get to N2 redline at the same time.

Ok, so how would you run a triple redline test then, given that we can't control ambient temperature? Well first you'll need to way to vary the thrust the fan produces. E.g. you could use a variable fan nozzle. On a cold day, you open up the fan exit area so you can get to higher N1 speeds with less thrust, and on a hot day you throttle it down. There are other options but this is easiest to explain. Then you need to control N2. The easiest way here is to open or close the variable stator vanes. This has the effect of making the HPC do more or less work per revolution, so you can tune in the exact speed you want.

Ok, so we added a variable fan nozzle and a different VSV schedule, and we are at triple-redline. Problem solved right? Wrong. Jet engines are extremely complicated devices with all kinds of interdependent requirements. If you change one thing, you end up affecting other stuff. Changing the VSV schedule might introduce aeromechanics issues onto the HPC blades, or change the cooling flows to different portions of the turbine. So then you have to make other modifications to the engine, like changing the sizes of all of the different cooling pipes so you get back to the original flow rates you wanted. But then, those changes also have other effects, which snowballs.

Historically (I mean like 1970s 1980s) the engine companies could make a few small changes and hit triple redline. As the engines became more and more complex, more and more changes were required. At some point, the list of changes required to make the engine hit triple redline is so big that the thing you are testing is a crazy chimera of an engine that has only a faint resemblance to the actual type design. At that point, running a triple redline test no longer makes sense. That's what happened with 9X. Therefore, GE found an alternative way to satisfy the endurance test requirement.

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  • $\begingroup$ If the engine is inside a test cell, you don't need to wait until the temperature, pressure, etc., are just right - you can vary the atmospheric conditions inside the test cell until they're just right. $\endgroup$ – Sean May 23 at 2:15
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    $\begingroup$ @sean, for very small engines, like a military fighter or business jet, test cells do exist that can control atmospheric conditions as you mentioned. However, the mass flow rate of a GE9X engine is something like 1.5 tons per seconds. A test cell that could produce that much flow at an arbitrary temperature and pressure would be exorbitantly expensive. None of the major engine manufacturers have anything close to that size. Biggest is maybe 1/10th of the required mass flow. $\endgroup$ – Daniel K May 23 at 2:42

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