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Old planes find new life in Kansas Coliseum

Courtesy photo
Melinda Laubach-Hock, right, is the director of sustainment at Wichita State’s National Institute for Aviation Research. She’s talking with Brian Ploutz, who is working on the B-1 fuselage at NIAR’s facility in the former Kansas Coliseum.

A different type of sound is now ringing through the Kansas Coliseum.

In its prime, the Kansas Coliseum hosted concerts, sporting events, rodeos and a little bit of everything else.

Today, the old arena north of Wichita looks like an aircraft boneyard, with remnants of old planes scattered throughout the 500,000-square-foot facility.

The arena and its outbuildings are home to the Aircraft Structural Test and Evaluation Center. It’s a research facility operated since 2012 by Wichita State’s National Institute for Aviation Research, known locally as NIAR.

Since 2018, NIAR has been involved in a program to extend the life of military aircraft like the B-1 bomber, which is approaching its 40th birthday.

Melinda Laubach-Hoch is NIAR’s director of sustainment and oversees the center.

“The thing you want to do is you want to squeeze all the economical life you have out of an asset until you get to the point where the risks start to climb,” said Laubach-Hoch, who has three degrees from WSU, including a doctorate in aerospace engineering.

“And so when you look at engineering back in the ’80s and ’60s … we are able now to sharpen our pencil a lot more. And so we want to make sure we're getting the full bang for our buck.”

That sharpened pencil includes NIAR’s ability to use digital engineering to create a virtual, 3-dimensional twin of the aircraft. With a 3D model, NIAR can test the plane digitally for things like aging, and wear and tear.

And it also allows NIAR to create 3D plans for parts that may be difficult – if not impossible – to find.

“When we talk about parts, obsolescence parts that were made in the ’60s and ’70s, the tooling doesn't exist anymore,” Laubach-Hock said. “They use old manufacturing technologies that aren't available anymore. What digital engineering does is it opens the supply base.

“There's about 100 local machine shops in the city of Wichita, a lot of people don't know that, and this brings them back into the defense game.”

The 3D model also lets NIAR test parts virtually to make sure they work and fit properly.

Beyond creating 3D models for parts, a digital twin also allows engineers to take a deeper look at the aircraft and understand how it operates as it gets older.

“Digital engineering is providing engineering models that help predict the way an aircraft behaves,” Laubach-Hock explained. “Anything from what we call global finite element modeling. That's kind of a structures model that tells you when you push and pull on the airframe in a certain way, how the load transfers through the aircraft.

“We're also doing some computational fluid dynamics analysis, which kind of shows the effect of air on the outside of the aircraft and affects performance.”

Despite all the gee-whiz, high-tech gadgets NIAR uses, creating a digital twin is a painstaking and labor-intensive process. Engineers and technicians have to disassemble the planes by hand.

Courtesy Photo

Aircraft pieces large and small litter the interior of the arena and the building next store. The sound of drills and hammering echo through the building.

The center is one of six NIAR facilities around the city. NIAR employs about 1,000 people, including WSU students.

Laubach-Hock said NIAR allows students to combine classroom work with hands-on experience, which makes it easier to find a job when they graduate.

“Theoretical and applied engineering are vastly different,” she said. “So the way we've tackled that is we have students work as engineers on our teams.

“A lot of the engineers that work with them are mid-to late-career engineers. And they're working with a 19-, 20-year-old going through engineering.

“And what it does is it really prepares the student to go out and be very marketable.”

Among the aircraft at the center are a couple of B-1 fuselages, each about 50 yards long. Laubach-Hock said creating a digital twin of the B-1 will take about six years and involve scanning and digitizing 65,000 parts.

The Air Force recently awarded WSU a $100 million contract for the work, the largest contract in school history. NIAR also has done work for the Navy and for the Army, including creating a digital twin of an armored personnel carrier.

As for the B-1, extending its life through 2040 makes economic sense. Each plane cost $200 million when it was built.

But Laubach-Hock said NIAR’s contract with the Air Force extends beyond that and into national security issues.

Right now the total bomber fleet for the United States – a mix of B-1s, B-2s and B-52s – is less than 140 planes.

“If we can't keep these airplanes mission-ready and ready to go, we're gonna have to change the way we do operations, which is obviously risky with what's going on in the world today and what could go on in the world in the future.”

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.