DOD may save historic NASA crash-test gantry

 - October 11, 2007, 11:08 AM

It took a flood in central Pennsylvania three decades ago to get NASA into the business of crash-testing airframes, and the siren call of the “final frontier” to get it out.

While the space agency plans to end its participation in the Impact Dynamics Research Facility (IDRF) located at its Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., in September, there is a chance that private interests or the Defense Department may step in to keep the trapezoidal structure testing the crashworthiness of new airframes.

The race for the moon gave birth to what NASA refers to simply as “the gantry,” and the continuing exploration of space may ultimately lead to its death. Or maybe not.
The NASA facility is one of a kind in the U.S., testing everything from the strength of landing gear on Navy carrier aircraft to helicopters to general aviation airplanes, ranging from established OEMs like Piper, Cessna and Beech to relative newcomers Cirrus and Lancair. Although the FAA operates some limited impact testing equipment at its Hughes Technical Center near Atlantic City, N.J., the agency recently chose Langley, with its 240-foot drop, to develop crash-resistant fuel systems.

Dr. Mark Shuart, director of structures and materials at NASA Langley, said the agency is ending its operations at the IDRF because “we don’t have any other additional programs that require use of the facility.” He said the closing had been planned for next year but it was accelerated because the program requirement “went away.”

Shuart told AIN, however, that some Army employees based at the center are talking about continuing using the gantry for Army testing with Army personnel. “There are also a number of industry people who have expressed an interest in seeing the facility continue to be used,” he said, “and we are trying to craft that into some kind of mutually beneficial partnership of the users.”

Why is NASA stepping back? Shuart recommended that the IDRF be closed because the agency is essentially being directed to move into other areas–“large space structures, other places where I need structural dynamicists, which are the generic skills that are resident in folks that are doing impact dynamics work.”

In light of a recommendation by the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry that the federal government “significantly increase” its investment in basic aerospace research, and the introduction of the Second Century of Flight Act in Congress to address that recommendation, AIN asked Shuart if NASA might reconsider its decision to close the gantry. “If the Congress passes a bill…that says they want NASA to run tests at the gantry, then certainly we will do that,” he replied.

Some consider this an inopportune time to be shutting down a one-of-kind major research facility when many in the industry are decrying the lack of modern aerospace research sites in the U.S. Rhett Flater, executive director of the American Helicopter Society International, recently told a House armed services subcommittee that with the imminent closing of the IDRF at NASA Langley, crash safety tests planned for the RAH-66 Comanche helicopter and the Joint Strike Fighter in 2005 must be performed at the Italian Aerospace Research Center in Capua, which has a gantry to do drop tests, or be canceled altogether.

Now listed as a National Historic Monument, the gantry was built in the 1960s to help train the NASA astronauts on landing the Apollo lunar module. It continued to be used in that capacity until the late 1960s, when it fell dormant for a number of years. It was converted to do impact testing in the mid-1970s, thanks to Tropical Storm Agnes, which swelled the Susquehanna River until it flooded the Piper Aircraft factory in Lock Haven, Pa., in 1972.

According to Shuart, Piper donated the flooded-out hulls of a number of aircraft it lost to water damage, and for the price of transporting them to Langley, NASA entered the crash-testing business.

Cost-effectiveness is behind NASA’s decision to close the IDRF. “It doesn’t make sense for me to have a facility that the agency isn’t using and that is a bit expensive to maintain, when we’re essentially getting out of that research,” said Shuart. “If others want to get into the research, that’s great. And we would certainly want to work with them to have them pick up running this facility.”

With the FAA’s Hughes Technical Center unable to do large-scale drop tests, he revealed that NASA has had a lot of discussions with the Army about using the facility, and “the ball is in their lap if they want to pick it up.”

Such a move would not be without precedent. NASA has an agreement with Old Dominion University in nearby Norfolk, Va., to operate NASA’s 30- by 60-foot wind tunnel. NASA does some of the maintenance, but the wind tunnel is completely run by the university.