NIAR quietly develops technology for aviation

 - February 2, 2007, 9:35 AM

Mention Wichita, and most people in the business aviation industry immediately think of Cessna, Raytheon/ Beech, Learjet or Boeing. Aviation history buffs and old-timers are likely to add Laird Airplane, Culver Aircraft, Travel Air or Stearman
to the list. But it’s a good bet that very few, if any, would even mention the National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR).

What a shame. If it weren’t for NIAR, many aerospace companies  in the air capital of the world–or elsewhere in the U.S.–probably would not have the array of technologies that they now possess. After all, NIAR integrates university, government and business entities in cooperative efforts to advance technologies for aviation and other industries.

Perhaps the most interesting research is that done in the icing lab. Headed by Dr. Michael Papadakis, this lab is investigating the effects of supercooled-large-droplet icing, which was implicated in the 1994 American Eagle ATR 72 accident near Roselawn, Ind., and the 1997 Comair Embraer Brasilia accident near Monroe, Mich.

In conjunction with the FAA and NASA, Papadakis and his team are currently conducting research to evaluate the effects of a range of ice accretions on aircraft aerodynamic surfaces. They are also developing a comprehensive aerodynamic database for aircraft design, certification and testing.

This data will eventually be used to develop training and educational tools for pilots. In this vein, NIAR and NASA are working to develop a flight simulator for icing effects, which will provide realistic simulation of in-flight encounters. According to Papadakis, the training tool will demonstrate aircraft operation in icing, effects of icing on aircraft performance and handling qualities and potential adverse maneuvers that might result from icing-induced loss of control.

The nonprofit organization, located at the Wichita State University and created by former university president Warren Armstrong in 1984, is a high-technology research and development, testing, certification and learning center. (Armstrong, WSU president from 1983 to 1993, died October 1 at the age of 70.) In essence, the institute is an aerospace engineering and aircraft materials clearinghouse.
NIAR has about 90 full-time staff, 100 student and graduate research assistants and a large group of WSU faculty researchers, fellows and other university associates.

The institute’s 74,000-sq-ft facility is home to 15 labs, with research in aerodynamics, aging aircraft, crash dynamics, composites and advanced materials, aircraft icing, structural components, virtual reality and computational mechanics, among others.

In fact, NIAR recently upgraded the wind tunnel in its aerodynamic lab to the tune of $6 million, and installation of a new $3 million crashworthiness sled–capable of testing seats, restraints and cockpits at 75g loads–was being calibrated in the crash dynamics lab at press time. The wind tunnel is also undergoing shake-down tests, with commercial testing slated to begin next month. A $10 million icing tunnel is on the drawing board.

On September 27 the institute added a 16th, but off-campus, lab– a full-scale 46,000-sq-ft aircraft structural fatigue test facility at Beech Field. This newest lab, called the Aircraft Structural Testing and Evaluation Center, is a $10 million donation from Raytheon Aircraft. The institute has relocated its aging aircraft research laboratory to the new fatigue test facility, which now provides proprietary full-scale aircraft fatigue testing services for the aviation industry. Not surprisingly, Raytheon is the institute’s launch customer for the new NIAR facility, which will provide structural testing for the aircraft manufacturer’s entire product line, including current work on Hawker Horizon fatigue and static test articles. Another client for the facility was pending at press time.

The institute also holds three FAA centers of excellence designations and this summer was appointed as NASA’s National Center for Advanced Materials Performance (NCAMP). NIAR has earned FAA recognition as a Center of Excellence for General Aviation Research, an Airworthiness Assurance Center of Excellence and a Center of Excellence in Composites and Advanced Materials. In 2001 it was awarded the prestigious FAA Excellence in Aviation Institutional Award for its ability to partner with industry, academia and government to advance aviation research.

Materials Testing
As part of its designation by NASA, the institute is charged with developing national standards for composite materials used in aircraft manufacturing. The aviation composite materials standards are similar to the mil-spec standards set for today’s aluminum aircraft materials during World War II.

“The institute’s new National Center for Advanced Materials Performance will develop the process by which aviation composites and advanced materials will be validated through a centralized database. All aircraft and parts manufacturers will use these quality-assurance standards to reduce costs and cycle times for new products,” said Dr. John Tomblin, NIAR executive director. The research group currently provides some 70 percent of the composite material research undertaken by the FAA, and will use this extensive composite experience in developing the national standards.

But NCAMP isn’t focused solely on composite materials. Also included under this research umbrella is certification of new aluminum joining processes such as friction-stir and laser welding, Tomblin told AIN. As part of this focus, NIAR has installed a friction-stir welding mini-gantry at the facility, which will be operational by year-end.

In its aging aircraft lab, NIAR is currently bending, twisting, pulling and stressing parts from B-52s, Cessna 402As, Beech Starships, KC-135s and various other aircraft.

Perhaps the most interesting structure in the lab is a 27-year-old composite horizontal stabilizer from a Boeing 737. What makes it so interesting is the fact that the structure is only one of four sets of composite horizontal stabilizers built in the late 1970s under a NASA research program to determine whether composite structures could be used for commercial aircraft. The horizontal stabilizer in the institute’s lab flew for nearly three decades on an Alaska Airlines’ 737.

Besides materials testing, the institute is heavily involved in computer-aided design. In fact, NIAR has a virtual-reality Catia lab, where engineers can wear special glasses that allow them to see the design on a screen in 3-D. Tomblin said the institute worked hand-in-hand with Cessna to facilitate the OEM’s 3-D lab for designing the Citation Mustang.