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Every Flight Counts — Using Data to Improve Aircraft Engine Performance

October 20, 2020 | by Chelsey Levingston
When airlines have a jet engine issue that prevents them from flying as planned, GE Aviation technical product support experts are on standby to respond to these issues 24/7. Their job is to help get the plane flying safely again as soon as possible, as far as the engine is concerned.

But what if mechanical issues could be anticipated so flight delays can be avoided?

Alongside technical product support is another GE Aviation team focused on identifying engine issues early so operators can act. GE Aviation employees in both Cincinnati and Shanghai perform around-the-clock data analysis, seeking to identify trends such as oil usage that mean an aircraft can’t takeoff on time because maintenance and repairs are needed. Once a potentially troublesome trend is spotted, they alert the airline to perform a maintenance check before it could lead to an unscheduled delay at the airport gate.

Each aircraft departure can tell the team, GE Aviation’s Fleet Support Remote Monitoring & Diagnostics, something about engine performance. Measurements being closely watched include oil usage, as well exhaust gas temperatures, vibration, rotor speed and fuel flow. This data is combined with known operating conditions for products and the teams’ own years of hands-on field experience to set parameters and send alerts when a jet engine isn’t performing the way it’s expected to.

Above: GE Aviation Senior Staff Engineer Patrick Ketelaar. Top: Michael Li, staff engineer for GE’s Remote Monitoring & Diagnostics in Shanghai.

Each day, GE Aviation Senior Staff Engineer Patrick Ketelaar and his colleagues review data across all engine models of the aviation industry’s largest commercial installed fleet. GE Aviation and Safran Aircraft Engines combined monitor approximately 38,000* commercial jet engines. Based on their data analysis, the team issues and tracks recommendations to airlines and other aircraft operators for their GEnx, CF6, GE90, CFM56**, CFM LEAP and other powerplants. And when recommendations such as repairing leaky valves and ducts are followed, it can improve engine fuel efficiency.

Not only is Ketelaar and the team looking for telltale signs that might mean an engine has a leak, needs a part replaced or is coming due for a restorative water wash, they’re constantly scouring the results for new signs to refine the analytical parameters.

“Our aircraft are flying everywhere, supporting businesses, moving critical medical supplies and letting people go on their dream vacations or just see grandma across the country,” said Ketelaar, who started his aviation career 20 years ago as an airline propulsion engineer. He joined GE six years ago and now leads fleetwide monitoring strategies. In fact, his team is now alerting customers of maintenance actions that at the beginning of his career, he would have received and carried out. “We are the insight customers need to keep flying without delays from their engines,” he said.

Michael Li, staff engineer for GE’s Remote Monitoring & Diagnostics in Shanghai and Ketelaar’s counterpart in China, said they partner with GE Aviation product engineers to manage the health conditions of the commercial engine fleets. These roles require both technical engine know-how and customer service skills, said Li, who has a total 15 years’ experience, including five years at GE. Ketelaar and Li also respond to customer questions about their teams’ field recommendations for GE and CFM International engines.

For example, one case this year was detected by higher than normal nacelle temperatures. The GE team in Shanghai alerted the customer to check the engine. Without knowing specifically what was causing the higher temperature, the issue wasn’t found by mechanics right away. However, the data continued to show something wasn’t right and eventually a pipe leakage was found. When a pressure line was replaced, the temperature went back to normal.

This persistence is key to successful flight operations and maintaining safety, Li said.

“People in the aviation world—we all have the same ideas. We are trying to change the way of people traveling with new advanced technology and to bring them home safely,” Li said. “Any time we can prevent a potential issue, improve engine performance or we can contribute to customers’ on-time arrivals, I think that’s my most exciting part of my role.”

During the global health pandemic, fewer aircraft are flying. That makes it more important than before that each flight operates safely and without unexpected interruptions.

Ron Williams, left, is a Fleet Support Senior Product Manager. Brian Bowman, right, is Regional Engines Fleet Manager for Fleet Support’s Remote Monitoring and Diagnostics.

As aircraft operators modify their fleets and operations, the Remote Monitoring & Diagnostics team is adjusting. The team leverages data received from thousands of aircraft departures worldwide to fine-tune its diagnostics and seek out new engine issues that can emerge.

All data alerts aren’t necessarily indicators of potential engine trouble ahead. Rather, data can also tell when routine engine maintenance is needed. Being able to plan maintenance ahead of time leads to fewer disruptions with customers’ operating schedules and lower aircraft engine operating costs.

Customers with comprehensive diagnostic packages for their fleets use data analytics to monitor fleet performance for regular maintenance needs, sometimes setting customized alerts for their engines to get more lead time to change an oil filter, for example. Remote Monitoring & Diagnostics Fleet Managers like Brian Bowman, who leads individual customer accounts, must adapt maintenance recommendations to how their unique customer operates. Bowman leads regular meetings with customers to discuss fleet diagnostics and plans to address any issues found with data.

“The analytics and Customer Notification Reports (CNRs) I work on can prevent significant events, delays and cancellations, improving our customers’ operations and ultimately, keeping the flying public moving safely and efficiently,” Bowman said.

*Includes GE and its partners

*CFM56 and LEAP engines are products of CFM International, a 50-50 joint company of GE and Safran Aircraft Engines

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GE Aerospace is a world-leading provider of jet and turboprop engines, as well as integrated systems for commercial, military, business and general aviation aircraft.