The institute has 180 clients, and a $50 million annual budget, half of which comes from commercial customers. In fact, it was Learjet, Beechcraft, Cessna and Boeing Wichita (now Spirit AeroSystems) that provided Tomblin with the industrial backing to open NIAR's doors in 1985. It is the third largest aerospace center in the U.S., and easily the largest focused on aircraft research that directly engages industry and is not heavily dependent on federal funding, he says.
Its staff of 350 includes WSU undergraduates and graduate students headed for aerospace careers. Harter is among the alumni.
The institute operates two FAA Centers of Excellence, has five locations encompassing 320,000 sq. ft. of laboratory and office space, and outsources its skills. For instance, it runs test labs for Beech. “We don't all need to own a wind tunnel. We don't all need to own a crash sled,” Tomblin says, noting that even though Wichita's aviation industrial base is a ready source for projects, NIAR has a global client list.
Its specialties include advanced coatings, aging aircraft, Cadcam automated design and manufacturing studies, computational mechanics, crash dynamics, metrology and human factors. Besides structural tests, it conducts environmental and non-destructive test programs.
NIAR also specializes in figuring out how to keep aircraft flying, given foreign object damage, clumsy airfield workers, lightning strikes and the fatigue of thousands of takeoff and landing cycles that can play havoc with an airframe.
Where ice hockey teams used to suit up, NIAR now houses a machine shop largely devoted to aging-aircraft studies. Its star is a 500,000-lb. compressor that can apply 60,000 ft.-lb. of torsion.
With it and smaller machines, NIAR can measure materials capability over full lifecycles. One contract is a “keep-'em-flying” contract for U.S. Air Force KC-135Es. “We're looking for corrosion and fatigue in places that have never been opened up,” Tomblin says.
The shop also tests the strength of structural repairs that manufacturers undertake to save an improperly made structure, such as a void.
Back at Wichita State, the National Center for Advanced Materials Performance is the largest private test center certified by the FAA, banging, zapping, puncturing and otherwise abusing about 1,000 test coupons a week.