Wichita State University Aging Aircraft Lab is increasing future plane safety

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The lab where aging aircraft are dissected for science — and safety


In the early study of anatomy, universities used cadavers to teach future doctors about the body. A thoracic surgeon, when asked to establish an objective test for the FAA’s Age 60 pilot rule, proffered that destructive testing of a live subject would be necessary to provide absolute proof, but there would be no volunteers to advance science.

The Aging Aircraft Lab at Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) is using cadaver” aircraft to increase knowledge of the impact of stress–cracking, corrosion, metal fatigue—on airplanes.

“’Really, we start the aging process the minute an aircraft rolls off the production line,’ says lab director Melinda Laubach-Hock. ‘We want to get ahead of the problems before they happen.’”

“’Most of the aircraft have cracking at some point in their life, also corrosion issues, so it’s best to have a plan from the beginning on how you’re going to treat those before they come up in the fleet’ she adds. ‘Engineers have gotten very good at predicting when cracks will occur, where they will occur, and they develop really good inspection plans to address those and keep our aircraft safe. But every now and then, there’s an issue that just pops up at a certain point in the service life that no one could predict because we’re not perfect at doing engineering work.’”






[Wichita State University, BS, Aerospace Engineering ,MS, Aerospace Engineering, Ph. D. Aerospace Engineering]

“In the process, they inspect each piece of the airframe for damage, using techniques like a fluorescent dye bath to highlight cracks on some parts. On others, they use what’s called an eddy current machine.

‘It basically induces an electromagnetic field into the part,’ Laubach-Hock explains. ‘And you have trained technicians that look at a scope, and when they get a specific signal, that tells them there’s a crack.’ Even ultrasounds can be used to detect issues in certain materials, she adds.”

The Aging Lab lists an impressive set of research and testing capabilities as well as active projects:

Capabilties: Teardown Evaluations

  • Large Section Extraction
  • Detailed Disassembly
  • Chemical Coating Removal
  • Non-Destructive Inspection
    • Close Visual Inspection
    • Fluorescent Liquid Penetrant Inspection
    • Magnetic Particle Inspection
    • Bolt Hole Eddy Current Inspection
    • Surface Scan Eddy Current Inspection
    • Magneto Optic Imaging
    • Ultrasonic Inspection
  • Failure Analysis (Optical and Scanning Electron Microscopy)
    • Flaw Extent Characterization
    • Crack Failure Mode Determination (Fatigue, Stress Corrosion, Overload, etc.)
    • Corrosion Characterization
    • Conductivity Testing
    • Chemical Composition Determination
    • Hardness Testing
    • Fatigue Crack Growth Rates
  • Process Development

Engineering Evaluations

  • Damage Tolerance
  • Finite Element Modeling
  • Repair Design





Representative Projects

  • Airworthiness Evaluation of Aging Small Airplanes
  • Teardown Evaluation of Two T-34 Wings
  • B-52 Assemblies Teardown and Inspection
  • Aging of Composite Aircraft Structures: Decommissioned Boeing 737 Tail
  • Teardown and Inspection of F-16 Static Test Article
  • C-5A Component Disassembly and Inspection
  • B-52 Wing Structural Teardown and Inspection
  • Raytheon Starship Teardown and Inspection

Facilities & Equipment

  • 21-cubic ft. dry blast paint stripping booth for removal of organic coatings
  • Magnaflux L-10 coil
  • Parker Research AC/DC yoke
  • Liquid penetrant inspection system
  • Magneto optic imaging (MOI) system
  • Staveley workstation
  • Nortec 2000S eddy scope
  • Sonic 1200 ultrasonic unit
  • Meiji Inc 7-45x optical microscope
  • Hirox Co. 50-300x optical microscope
  • Rene Co. digital optical micromete
  • Joel scanning electron microscope
  • Chemical coating removal facility


Unlike the grave robbers who provided the test objects for medical schools, NAIR gets its inventory from donors and occasionally the FAA funds the purchase of an aircraft. Once at WSU, technicians dissect the planes carefully to assure that the sample structure reflects only the wear and stress incurred while flying. Instead of sending a retired aircraft to the desert for its scrap value, CONSIDER A TAX DEDUCTIBLE DONATION TO NAIR !!!.

Somewhat like the proactive, forward-looking focus of the FAA’s Big Data approach, especially FOQA, Dr. Laubach-Hock sees great relevance for tomorrow’s aircraft design:

“But in the future, Laubach-Hock hopes planes will be built with sensors to self-diagnose problems during their service life. She says there’s already been research done into structural health monitoring, ‘which means embedding sensors into certain parts of the airframe as you build it and then monitoring certain properties of the airframe as you go on.’

‘Just think about the engine in your car,’ she adds. ‘It gives you a light and says something’s wrong with it. That’s applicable to airframes too. We just haven’t been able to get there with the structural part of an airframe yet.’”

The potential of learning from aircraft skeletons should contribute to the safety of future plane design and operation.


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