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Volcanic ash is sprayed into one of the F117 engines of a C-17 during the final phase of the Vehicle Integrated Propulsion Research project at Edwards AFB, Calif., on July 9, 2015. NASA AFRC photo by Tom Tschida.

Testers at Edwards AFB, Calif., are blasting volcanic ash through a C-17's Pratt & Whitney F117 engines to test if, and how, aircraft could safely skirt eruption plumes. An Icelandic volcano in 2010 caused the Air Force to reroute flights in and out of Ramstein AB, Germany, and badly disrupted commercial air traffic around Europe. Agencies, including NASA, the Air Force, and several industry partners, launched the Vehicle Integrated Propulsion Research to explore ways of monitoring engine health and increase safety—including volcanic ash research—the same year. Since then, three tests using a pair of highly instrumented engines have been conducted, culminating in the July 9 test, according to Edwards' release. "We can detect how the volcanic ash in many ways is affecting the engine real time, so we can also begin to develop the diagnostics capabilities," explained NASA's researcher John Lekki. "This test will definitely help us take the next step in understanding if we can fly close to these plumes," added Air Force Research Laboratory researcher Jack Hoyning.