WICHITA — With its 48-foot-high roof and loft-like openness, Britt Brown Arena at the former Kansas Coliseum complex is a perfect place for the National Institute for Aviation Research to take on more full-scale structural testing for clients, its executive director said Friday.
NIAR hopes to be in Britt Brown Arena by the end of this year, John Tomblin said, and will conduct testing for commercial and military clients. He declined to say who the clients would be.
He emphasized that NIAR still is hammering out the details of a lease agreement with Wichita oilman and developer Johnny Stevens, who is buying Britt Brown Arena and the Kansas Pavilions from Sedgwick County for $1.5 million.
“The Coliseum is a very unique facility,” Tomblin said.
If all goes as planned — and Tomblin said he had no reason to doubt it would — about 70 employees would work at Britt Brown initially. Employment would rise to about 80 after the first year. He estimated that about 30 percent of the staff would be new hires pulling in an average $50,000 to $70,000 a year.
Tomblin said he expects NIAR to do about $15 million of contract work each year there for the “foreseeable future,” which he defined as three to four years.
NIAR, part of Wichita State University, is one of the key testing laboratories in the world for airplane parts, avionics and composites. The National Science Foundation last year listed Wichita State second among all U.S. universities in total aeronautical research and development funding.
NIAR will do strength, durability and fatigue testing on aircraft at the Coliseum complex. Britt Brown, which closed in early 2010 when Intrust Bank Arena opened in downtown Wichita, meets NIAR’s unique needs.
“What’s attractive about the Coliseum is we needed a very high roof,” Tomblin said. “We also need the clear span.”
It’s rare for a building to offer both a high roof and openness free of encumbrances such as columns, Tomblin said.
The arena’s seating area will be taken out, he said, and the door on the south side of the Coliseum will be enlarged to accommodate aircraft.
Staff will “take an aircraft in full scale and do strength, durability and fatigue testing on it. We also will be looking at some aging aircraft studies, taking in very large components, primarily from the military, tearing them apart and seeing how they’ve aged,” Tomblin said.
“Very few of these test facilities exist in the United States,” Tomblin said. “We are doing this kind of testing now at our site at Hawker Beechcraft but based on the amount of clients we have, we have outgrown that site.”
The institute is spread out over several locations: WSU, the National Center for Aviation Training, Hawker Beechcraft and a site in Augusta. It does full-scale testing at Hawker Beechcraft. NIAR spokeswoman Tracee Friess said NIAR has no plans at this time to move out of Hawker Beechcraft.
NIAR plans to lease 130,000 square feet from Stevens, who said he is scheduled to close on his deal with the county Tuesday.
NIAR is starting hiring now, Tomblin said.
“The work is coming,” he said.
He first looked at Britt Brown about a year-and-a-half ago when NIAR was bidding on a large military contract, he said.
“We did not win that program, but customers kept coming for us,” he said.
Stevens said he plans to start remodeling next week, starting with replacing the arena’s roof.
Stevens also is buying the pavilions — which have been popular for horse, dog and livestock shows and events such as swap meets and gun shows — and plans to keep them open through at least Jan. 1, 2016.