NIAR’s Newest Lab Opens at Former Coliseum

 - July 2, 2013, 1:10 AM
Bombardier’s Learjet 85 is currently undergoing testing at NIAR’s Aircraft Structural Testing and Evaluation Center. The facility provides almost any necessary structural test, from testing a full-scale aircraft to testing at the coupon level.

Normally, when a sports arena reaches the end of its life, it’s torn down. In Wichita, self-proclaimed “Air Capital of the World,” however, it’s renovated and converted into a state-of-the-art full-size aircraft test facility. Last month the National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) at Wichita State University (WSU) finished the transformation of the former Britt Brown Arena/Kansas Coliseum into the brand-new Aircraft Structural Testing and Evaluation Center (Astec for short), one of four Wichita-area aviation test facilities currently operated by the school.

Built in 1977, the 12,000-seat arena owned by Sedgwick County hosted concerts, minor-league ice hockey, professional indoor soccer, professional wrestling events, monster truck pulls and even the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, but when county officials decided that they needed a larger arena that would also comply with updated disability accommodation requirements, they built a new venue in downtown Wichita and shuttered the old Coliseum.

For two years it sat vacant and in disrepair while at the same time NIAR executive director John Tomblin was considering ways to increase the size of his testing labs to accommodate requests for full-scale aircraft evaluations. “To do one of these aircraft tests you need a tall ceiling and a wide span to fit a full-size aircraft,” Tomblin told AIN. “If you start looking around at buildings, you’ll find there are few that have this unless they’re built specifically for that purpose.” As the Coliseum deteriorated and the county mulled razing the facility, Tomblin realized that he might have found his new lab space. “It just so happens that if you overlay those requirements to what a concert arena has, you’ll find out they kind of match up,” he said. A private real estate developer agreed to buy the building and grounds for $1.5 million and renovate it, which turned out to be a shrewd deal for the county, which estimated the taxpayer cost of demolishing the structure and emptying the site at between $2.5 million and $4 million.

Construction began in May last year, starting with replacement of the roof, which had begun to leak badly. The seats were removed and the lower-level bleacher sections were then torn out on the two long sides of the oval arena, opening even more of the building’s cavernous interior. On the back side loading bay a 70-foot-wide by 30-foot-high hangar door was installed, allowing for the movement of cranes, test fixtures and aircraft. Along the center of the former arena floor, a trench was excavated to accommodate the hydraulic and air lines that would feed the test rigs. Conversion of the 130,000-sq-ft structure cost more than $8 million, including $2 million from WSU, which has a 10-year lease on the facility plus two 10-year renewals. The new space nearly triples the size of NIAR’s previous structural testing lab, which it still operates in a 1940s-era facility on the Beechcraft campus. “The new facility here has a lot more capability and size capacity than that facility has,” noted Tomblin. “Probably the [Hawker] 4000 was about the biggest aircraft we could get in there, and that was pushing it.” The new Astec can accommodate aircraft the size of an Air Force B-1B bomber or a Boeing 787 (after removal of wings and empennage), and according to Tim Hickey, director of NIAR’s fullscale structural test lab, it could fit up to eight full-size aircraft test programs at a time.

Manufacturer Testing Under Way

The facility completed its first structural test in March, and the Learjet 85 is currently in the midst of its slate of tests. Another current program involves the engine pylons for the Airbus A350, and others are in the pipeline. The facility can perform virtually any structural test required from full scale all the way down to the coupon level. It houses a half-million-pound load test frame, one of the few sites with that capability. “The testing that we do is kind of cradle-to-grave,” said Hickey. “We can write the test plans, help develop test loads, design and fabricate the fixtures, do instrumentation and do the teardown, including non-destructive inspection, so we can provide just about anything needed to [validate the performance of structures].”

Given that engineering crews from the various OEMs will spend many hours a day over weeks or even months at the facility during testing of their products, part of the renovation included the construction of customer offices, a cafeteria/lunch room, even a gym, making the facility basically a self-enclosed world except for sleeping facilities.

The new facility also now houses NIAR’s aging-aircraft lab. “Once these tests are done, what a customer usually wants is to see what damage the one lifetime imposed on the aircraft,” said Tomblin. “We wanted to have non-destructive inspection capability there as well as the ability to tear the aircraft down and see whether there’s cracking or fatigue issues, so we have that in the facility as well.” The lab’s current major client is the U.S. Air Force, whose focus is on the KC-135 tanker, parts of which are brought to the facility to examine for fatigue and/or corrosion. Similar tests have been performed at the FAA’s behest on civil aircraft such as the Cessna 402, the Piper Navajo and the Beech 1900.

Currently the facility, which is located approximately 11 miles from the university’s main campus, employs a staff of 80, a number that Tomblin expects will increase to approximately 120 by the end of next year.