Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio -- The 96th Test Group Aerospace Survivability and Safety Office has two critical missions – aircraft survivability and landing gear systems safety supported by the Aerospace Vehicle Survivability Facility and the Landing Gear Test Facility.
The Air Force started investigating reasons for significant loss of aircraft in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War era. While these investigations were the genesis of the current survivability mission at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, elements of the survivability and landing gear test facilities have actually been at WPAFB since the WWII era. Building 31, which is now a registered historic landmark, was home to those missions until they were transferred from the Air Force Research Laboratory to the 96th Test Wing. The 96 TG/OL-AC is located here to support current and future USAF and DoD aircraft survivability and landing gear safety research development test and evaluation needs.
Most of the Air Force aircraft inventory has gone through these test facilities in one form or another with aircraft survivability and landing gear system test and evaluation.
“The Aerospace Survivability and Safety Office has premier test facilities supporting the entire Department of Defense,” said Gary Wollam, director, 96th Test Group. “We’re involved in major aspects of the warfighter mission from safe takeoff, to helping make sure the platform is survivable if it does get hit in combat, and then getting back and landing safely.”
The aerospace vehicle survivability facility strives to develop a fundamental understanding of munitions damage effects on United States Air Force aircraft conducting tests to include warhead-function characterization of foreign munitions and assessments of damage sustained. Lasers are also now being tested.
“For munitions impact events, on-board extinguishers are designed to put out any resulting fire,” said Alex Kurtz, AVSF Flight Chief. Lasers engagements occur over longer times, so initially-extinguished fires can reignite. We either need to prevent laser burn-through or mitigate fire in a different way.”
The landing gear test facility is a unique facility that supports the entire Department of Defense and has 13 different test machines.
“No other service does independent aircraft landing gear test and evaluation,” said Wollam. “We also conduct testing for commercial tire, wheel and brake manufacturers. About half of the business on the landing gear side is commercial, which helps offset our operating costs. Over the years, there has been a high return on investments for both the landing gear and aircraft survivability test capabilities.”
“Landing gear testing has taken a revolutionary turn,” said Dr. Michael Bohun, LGTF flight chief. “We are now able to clone aircraft runways by developing concrete replicas that are installed in our internal drum dynamometer (a world-unique machine) for testing under actual aircraft runway surface conditions. Runway replication allows prediction of aircraft tire wear, which is really critical because some of the new fighters are landing faster with higher loads and tires are wearing out very quickly. If a tire fails prematurely, you could lose an aircraft.” Bohun added, “We not only do tire, wheel, and brake testing for all of the DoD, but we support tire testing for the Federal Aviation Administration and NASA. As an example, before each space shuttle mission, we pretested all tires and then X-rayed them for defects to ensure safety-of-flight.”
Safety is really big now because the Air Force is extending the life of its aircraft. Few thought the B-52 would still be in-service after 50 years, and current plans show the B-52’s life span may extend past 2040. The 96 TG/OL-AC works with the program offices on safety-of-flight for redesigned and modified landing gear system components such as tires, wheels, and brakes. As a result, there are new landing gear system components that are more fatigue resistant and can handle the higher temperatures to help safely extend the life of the aircraft landing gear system.
“It’s always very inspiring and it makes us feel like what we’re doing here is very value added when you see the aircraft flying around and you have a sense of your contribution to the warfighter,” said John Murphy, technical director. “Aircraft design lifetimes are likely to be stretched. Part of our job is to keep our aircraft survivable and safe into the future. It makes us feel rewarded, like what we’re doing is relevant to not only the Air Force but to the other Services.”