When Jim MacLeod heard that Canada’s assistant deputy minister of defence had recommended him as a candidate for the NATO Science and Technology Board’s highest award – the von Kármán medal – which had only been won by three Canadian scientists before, he didn’t like his chances.
“I was honoured that they would even nominate me given the calibre of some of the people that they’ve put in there but I literally told him, I didn’t say he was a fool, I said he was just wasting his time,” MacLeod, a National Research Council (NRC) Canada research officer for jet engine icing, recalled during an interview at the GLACIER jet engine test facility south of Thompson on Dec. 16.
So when he found out that he had been unanimously chosen to receive the award, which he accepted at an awards ceremony in Tirana, Albania on Sept. 16, MacLeod could hardly believe his ears.
“I got an email asking me if I was available for a phone call from the NATO chief scientist,” says MacLeod. “Then I got the message that I had floated to the top of that. I just couldn’t wrap my head around that.”
He remembered to thank his boss in his acceptance speech, however.
“The assistant deputy minister of defence was there,” MacLeod says. “I thanked him for wasting his time.”
MacLeod received the award – becoming the fourth NRC aerospace employee to do so – in recognition of the service he has provided NATO during his time with the NRC, which began in 1982, right about the time that NATO was embarking on a new jet engine testing project that saw two jet engines sent to eight different facilities around the world, including one owned by the NRC as well as others operated by NASA and by the air forces of the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Turkey.
“The idea was to see whether people would get the same answers and what came out of that was no,” said MacLeod. “The facility and the type of facility that you test an engine in will alter its performance in some way and some way different that what it would perform if it were just on an aircraft out in the free air.”
That became his thesis topic in graduate school and led him to further work on jet engine testing facilities, including Canadian air force facilities from Nova Scotia to Alberta. That led to him sharing an office with the NRC’s then-expert on engine icing certification, which NRC has been conducting since the 1940s.
“There had been the guru before him and the guru before him and he was our current one and I basically learned what he was doing at the same time,” says MacLeod. “Then in the mid ‘90s when our icing guy retired, I took over as the icing specialist and basically my focus since that time has been more on the environmental certification of engines whether it’s icing or rain or hail or bird ingestion testing.”
MacLeod came to Thompson in 2007 when the GLACIER facility was built through a partnership that included NRC, which owns the spray mast and nozzles that spray frozen water droplets into engines being tested, as well as jet engine manufacturers Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce.
MacLeod was familiar with Northern Manitoba’s cold temperatures and knew that his predecessor’s predecessor had worked at an NRC facility for jet engine icing testing in Churchill in the 1950s and 1960s. When the NRC decided that it needed a bigger testing facility than the one it has in Ottawa, MacLeod and others tasked with picking the site started looking there.
“They would put everything on the train and send it up to Churchill,” MacLeod says. “They basically had to ship everything up there and they had to ship all the fuel that they were going to use for the test and sometimes they’d get into the third or fourth day of the test and the engine would go boom and the test was over and they had all this fuel that they couldn’t get rid of and he said it was a nightmare for them to try to be able to determine how much fuel they should have and not end up with too much left over.”
Any new facility needed road access to avoid that problem.
“Gillam was the end of the road but Thompson is pretty much the end of civilization road so to me that looked like the best target,” said MacLeod.
It wasn’t a slam-dunk, though. There was stiff competition from Wabush, Labrador. “One of the main things that hurt Wabush was the iron,” MacLeod says. “I guess the iron dust up there is so bad that the hard drives won’t last more than a couple of months in a computer. So we said, that’s not going to work.”
MacLeod spends two to three months working out of the Thompson facility in a typical year, depending on the schedule of the manufacturers. And while it won’t remain the biggest in Canada for much longer, thanks to a $26 million expansion planned for another facility in Winnipeg, MacLeod says GLACIER may need to expand.
“We are currently capable of handling the biggest engines but if we believe what the engine manufacturers are telling us we’re going to have to upscale it by another 50 per cent probably,” he says.
Still, if he had to do it all over again, MacLeod said he’d pick a different spot: north of Thompson, closer to the airport.
“We’ve sometimes found there’s a 10-degree difference between here and the airport,” he says. “They’re down in a bowl, right, they’re sort of low and we’re as high as you can get pretty much in terms of the height. When there’s no wind, just the stratification of air means the colder air sinks to the lower levels and the warmer air is at the higher levels. When there’s a breeze it’s not an issue but we’ve had some days where it’s just like dead, dead calm, flags are just limp and we’re sitting there and the weather forecast said we were going to get -10 and we’re sitting here and it’s -6 and it’s -10 out at the airport.”