John Tomblin drives NIAR forward by bringing people together

John Tomblin became boss of the National Institute for Aviation Research eight years ago when he was only 33. He's the man who has saved Wichita aviation companies millions of dollars in testing and travel money by developing new labs here, according to Cessna Aircraft's top engineer.

He helped create the idea and the beginnings of a medical composite materials industry.

He grew NIAR's operating budget from $18.2 million when he took over in 2003 to $39 million now.

NIAR — one of aviation's premier testing and research labs — is a virtual popcorn factory of ideas about how to create new things or test the brilliant — but possibly flawed — ideas of others.

Tomblin's people created a virtual reality lab to do 3-D interactive airplane design work. His staff, which includes 24 people with doctorates, speculates on and tests components and parts for every imaginable flying machine — commercial and general aviation aircraft, predator drones fighting war by remote control in Afghanistan.

NIAR has become one of the aerospace industry's more important guiding stars as the industry converts to composite materials and develops fantastic new tools, including many of the top-secret electronics and electronics-shielding products that Tomblin's engineers are testing for the military at NIAR.

Like a newly formed planet, it is increasing its gravitational pull, creating yet more satellites, more labs, more contracts, more employees, more reputation.

But the biggest thing, according to Tom Freeman, one of NASA's top aerospace technologists, is that Tomblin has saved the aviation industry hundreds of millions of dollars in research costs in recent years.

That's a tall claim. But Freeman, who has worked extensively with Tomblin on composite materials projects, says it's true, and that NIAR and Wichita — because of Tomblin's brains and leadership — are now among the world leaders in advanced materials research.

Tomblin did it, Freeman said, by doing something that looked impossible at first: He persuaded aviation competitors who had spent millions of dollars doing secret research to share it with each other.

"He's so good at getting people to agree that I wish he'd run for office someday," Freeman said.

As a result, Freeman said, Tomblin, a West Virginia coal miner's son, is at age 41 one of the more influential leaders in aviation.

"He's got a way with people," Freeman said.

But Tomblin himself says this was a trait he acquired only after being severely humbled by a number of aviation people in Wichita, including line workers and engineers from the factories.

The key to understanding the success of NIAR, Tomblin said, can be told in one story about one day in 1994 when he was a new teacher of aerospace engineering at Wichita State University.

One of his students, an older man who obviously had worked in Wichita aviation factories, listened to the young and cocky John Tomblin, Ph.D., tell the class how to build airplanes.

Then the student raised his hand.

Nine words from him later, Tomblin was never quite the same.

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Before we finish that story, here's what aviation people say Tomblin has done for aviation and Wichita:

Everybody in aviation could see, when composite materials came along decades ago, that they would revolutionize aircraft skin and parts, Freeman said.

But everybody worldwide wanted to keep their recipes and ideas and research on composites secret. The research on the many varieties of resins and fibers and plastics at each company cost many millions, he said, so being secretive was understandable.

What this meant was that everybody was spending millions of dollars apiece reinventing wheels that had already been secretly invented elsewhere.

The same thing happened even further back in time, Freeman said, when aviation began to use aluminum to make airplane skins. Everybody was so protective of their different ideas for aluminum that it took World War II to force everybody to do the real cost-saving thing: share information, and build on each other's ideas and materials.

What Tomblin did, in tipping the scales toward cooperation on composites, was to persuade competitors to do it even without the pressure of a war.

Complicating this, Freeman said, was that changing peoples' thinking involved persuading not only competitors but others to agree, including politicians, research academics — many of whom, Freeman said, have a tendency to get lost in research rather than business practicality — and FAA regulators demanding rigid quality controls.

"He was the key person who began to turn this around," Freeman said. "There's still a ways to go, but he got it rolling, and the result over time is hundreds of millions in savings for everybody."

He pulled it off for a number of reasons, Freeman said. Tomblin is an accomplished academic scientist — he's done hands-on research, written scientific papers, and personally runs the composites research lab at NIAR while directing NIAR's other labs.

"But he's also got this ability to get everybody to agree," Freeman said. "He's not just a guy who wants to write scientific papers."

Because of him, Freeman said, Wichita is now recognized — at least in the airframe construction industry — as "the most popular place to go to in the world" to get anything good done with composites.

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Meanwhile, according to David Brant, Cessna's top aerospace engineer, Tomblin was also saving the big aviation companies in Wichita millions of dollars by developing new NIAR testing labs so the aviation companies no longer had to go to the East or West coasts to get the testing done.

"We were sending a lot of research money out of Wichita," said Brant, who is senior vice president for product engineering for Cessna. "Sled testing, for example (NIAR now has a sled testing lab that test-crashes newly engineered airplane seats to see how they might be made more safe).

"We also needed testing done for lightning strikes, composite structures, bonding analysis. We were sending all of this work outside Kansas."

Tomblin persuaded people to give him money for labs, Brant said. Every dollar they invested was used by Tomblin to leverage more money, Brant said.

"He's a guy who can pull it all together, and he did," Brant said. "He can be talking one day to NASA, the next day to the DOD (Department of Defense), the next day being at the Statehouse talking to legislators about funding, and then switch gears and come talk to me about what kind of testing we need."

Labs got built; so did NIAR's reputation.

One by-product, Brant said: The new labs Tomblin created kept millions of dollars in the Wichita economy that would have gone out of Wichita before.

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At NIAR, Tomblin supervises 350 of some of the more highly specialized people imaginable, in fields including advanced materials and microwave radiation.

These are engineers: picky, focused, with their own peculiar ways of doing things, their own peculiar humor.

Lab managers like Tim Hickey, Melinda Laubach and John Laffen say Tomblin lets them run their labs with no interference.

"He'll get involved only if things aren't going well," said Laffen, who runs the wind tunnel and other labs.

Tomblin is shrewd about hires; a few years back, he hired an engineer with years of experience, Tom Aldag, away from Brant and Cessna, to become NIAR's chief of research and development.

On the other hand, he's promoted a number of young people he groomed as students; Laubach, 29, has been running NIAR's Aging Aircraft testing lab since she was 25.

Tomblin can be intense, or quiet, depending on what's up, Laffen said. He brings in a lot of dollars but he's a watchdog on spending, a trait Laffen remembers well from 2003 when they upgraded the wind tunnel and the costs kept growing.

One day, Laffen said, he had to go in and ask for yet another $150,000.

"John listened, and then looked in disgust: 'OK, fine, you can have it!' he said. 'But if you need one more... pencil, you're going to pay for it with your own money.' "

One other time, Laffen said, he got Tomblin to spring for a 42-inch plasma television monitor, to show data in the wind tunnel. They hung it on the wall, and shortly after that, Tomblin led a tour of politicians into the tunnel. He stared at the monitor, and turned on Laffen.

"When did I authorize you to buy a big-screen TV?"

"You didn't," Laffen said. "You authorized a large-screen data display."

"The politicians laughed," Laffen said.

"Later on, John was gaga about what that display could do," Laffen said. "But he was still steamed about the expense."

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"I don't find any arrogance in the guy at all," Brant said.

And that, Tomblin said, is a key to how to get people to get along with you.

The reason he's able to get so many competitors and others to go along with him is simple, Tomblin said.

"I decided from the beginning that I was going to listen a lot more than I was going to talk; I was going to ask people how we could help them rather than tell them how to build airplanes.

"I found out about this early on — that if you don't know what you are talking about, people here will straighten you out right away."

Which brings us back to that day in 1994 at WSU, when Tomblin, Ph.D., was not as humble as he is now.

"When you're a young Ph.D. you think you know everything," he said.

"In my first year at Wichita State 16 years ago I taught a class.

"One day I told them how you build an airplane.

"A guy in the back raised his hand. An aircraft worker.

"'Well,' the guy said. 'That's not how we do it at Boeing.' "

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