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A conversation with Billy Martin

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, March 1, 2014, at 11:56 p.m.


You might say that Billy Martin has an electrifying personality.

Martin, 57, is the new senior research scientist and director of the Electromagnetic Energy Lab at Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research.

He also is one of the most knowledgeable authorities on high-intensity radiated fields and lightning in the U.S., according to NIAR.

Martin’s specialty is protecting aircraft from electromagnetic fields.

At NIAR, Martin will manage all aspects of the Electromagnetic Energy Lab.

Martin grew up in Davis, Okla., the son of a single mom.

When he was 16, he began working on oil drilling rigs.

“We were really poor,” Martin said. “I worked all my life.”

After high school, Martin worked full time on a drilling rig and also attended Oklahoma State University full time.

While at OSU, he decided to join the Marine Corps. When the recruiter asked Martin what he wanted to do, he said he wanted to go to the best schools the Marine Corps have.

“They said that would be radar; I said that would be fine,” Martin said.

He passed the testing, went to school and served as a radar repairman on digital control long-range search radar.

“I discovered I had a talent for that,” Martin said.

After the Marines, Martin returned to OSU and earned a bachelor of science degree in electronic engineering. He also holds a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Newman University.

After college, Martin worked for Boeing as an antenna designer and was the principal designer on the special application antenna for B-52, B1-B and F-111 aircraft.

“I worked on some really fun stuff,” Martin said.

In 1990, Martin joined Cessna Aircraft Co., where he worked 23 years before joining NIAR.

At Cessna, he was principal engineer and served as supervisor of its Electromagnetic Energy group, where he was named on a number of lightning protection-related patent applications.

Martin also serves on a number of industry-related committees.

Martin and his wife, Janan, have five daughters.

In his spare time, he likes to hunt, fish and spend time with family.

The main portion of NIAR’s EME lab is located at Beechcraft Corp. A smaller portion of is on WSU’s campus. What’s the advantage to having the lab at Beechcraft?

It has a runway right there, which is a tremendous asset. You can bring aircraft into that facility to do full vehicle testing. ... It’s got a big hangar out there. There’s a lot of advantages to having it there.

As head of the EME lab, what is your primary job?

I’m a DER (designated engineering representative) for the FAA and have been for high-intensity radiated fields. My job primarily is to help customers certify their airplanes, to do research in correlation with the FAA, to help further aviation safety as well as try to reduce certification costs because those are getting out of hand. ... The bottom line, I’m in the safety business.

How do you reduce those costs?

(We) try to standardize things. Standardization is good for the FAA because everyone does it the same. They don’t have to do as much work and from the industry standpoint, it reduces risk. That’s a tremendous cost savings. That’s one of the fields that the lab can do is help standardize things in regard to this area.

So what kind of testing do you do? What are some examples?

(Regarding) power on the airplane. ... As you switch loads on and off, you’ll get spikes and dropouts. We call that power quality tests. You want that equipment to function. ... (Airplanes have global positioning systems, navigation and communication receivers.) We test all the equipment to make sure the noise ... doesn’t affect other things. They have to play nice with one another.

What do you like best about your job?

I like all of it. I like ensuring airplanes are safe. I’m passionate about my job; I’m passionate about aviation safety. I enjoy the challenge of it. Things are always moving. People have no idea how complex an airplane is. It’s probably the most complex thing that human beings build.

What’s the biggest challenge in your job?

Probably the biggest challenge is the fact that we now are integrating so many different functions together. It used to be that things were done mechanically. ... Now we’re doing everything with electronics. When you do that, you have software and you’re interfacing things. The complexity just keeps increasing. There are reasons for that. You can do it more efficiently, which drives costs down.

You also mentioned that the speed at which technology is advancing is also a challenge. How so?

If you think about electronics, with your cellphone, when you walk out the door, it’s already obsolete. They’ve already invented the new one. That’s fine for cellphones. But we build products that last 30 or 40 years and fly at 40,000 feet. The difference between making a mistake with your cellphone, you throw it in the trash. If you make a mistake with an airplane, you make a big hole in the ground. The challenge with airplanes is the complexity.

Do people ever tease you about your name?

They usually give me a hard time about Billy Martin being a baseball coach with the Yankees.

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @mmcmillin.

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