Wichita engineer’s virtual models for aerospace testing are miles above other methods, industry experts say

Gerardo Olivares likes to crash-test dummies on a crash-test sled at the National Institute for Aviation Research in Wichita.

He cranks them back, shoots them forward. Heads, arms and legs snap forward, and their waistlines collapse, crushed in painful-looking imitations of what happens when a body folds around a seat belt at high velocity.

He uses dummies, he said with a grin, “because it’s really hard to get live volunteers to ride the crash-test dummy sled.”

Dummies do valuable work, as his boss, John Tomblin, said. But it is not the work that Olivares will be known for, Tomblin said.

Instead it is possible, Tomblin said, that Olivares will go down in aerospace history as the guy who showed how to do aerospace safety tests in 3D virtual models on a computer screen – making dummies much less important than they are now and making costly physical tests less important.

Olivares is getting the dummies out of aerospace. It will not only save lives, Tomblin said, it will save the industry hundreds of millions of dollars.

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The most important work aerospace people have done since the Wright brothers is physically test every part that goes into a plane, Tomblin said.

This has become incredibly expensive. A first-class airplane seat, with all its engineering, can cost $120,000 to $150,000, Olivares said. Break a prototype of one of those, and you’ve spent real money.

Aerospace engineers ruin lots of prototypes in tests. At NIAR, they crank up their giant wind tunnel. They stick electronic parts in a giant microwave oven. They bend, twist, pound, drill, smash, shake, burn and freeze things.

Beechcraft Corp. engineers, when they do their own testing, even cover planes and parts with dust and dirt to see how they perform in a desert environment, said John Kraft, the manager of advanced technology for the company.

“Smashing things from every conceivable angle and every temperature is what shows us how things might break and how to prevent them from breaking,” Tomblin said.

Wrecking a costly seat prototype in a test is one thing. Wrecking them in repeat tests is still another thing.

“But now imagine doing a drop test on an air frame section made from composite materials,” Olivares said.

Drop tests of frame sections – in which a section is lifted with a crane and then dropped – have been standard for decades. But those airframes cost millions.

The cost of getting a plane safety-certified became astronomical years ago, Tomblin said.

“A clean-sheet airplane, a new airplane design that starts with a blank sheet of paper, can now cost half a billion dollars to develop,” he said.

Olivares has thought for years that aerospace needed to convert much of its testing to virtual models, in programs that look like some video games. (“They are not video games,” Olivares said with a grin. “They are mathematical models.”)

Other aerospace people are working with virtual programs, too, Tomblin and Kraft said, but Olivares has pioneered how to do “crash-worthiness testing” and has made NIAR the premier place where that testing is quickly moving to what might be called reality.

Kraft said Olivares has been “incredibly innovative” in pioneering virtual testing. He’s not only reshaping how the industry can do it but is also training people. About half of the 40 people who work for Olivares at NIAR are master’s or doctoral students who, after training, will get jobs in the aerospace industry.

“He’s trained dozens, probably more than a hundred people, who go on to get jobs in aerospace and can pass this knowledge along,” Kraft said. “Everywhere I go now, I run into someone trained by him.”

The Federal Aviation Administration is so confident about his work that it has given him more than $700,000 to do it, Olivares said. The industry has matched that.

Since 2005, he and his team have worked on more than 60 crash-worthiness projects paid for by clients from 12 countries.

This is gratifying, Olivares said, in part because the aerospace industry is so resistant to innovation that he quit the industry some years ago.

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He left aerospace and Wichita for Europe 12 years ago.

Going to Germany and working on new cars helped him grow, he said. By 2001, safety designs in new cars had become more important than before.

Aerospace people could learn from car designers, Olivares said. Name a new safety innovation, he said, and automotive people 12 years ago were more open to it than aerospace people: “Virtual testing, advanced crashworthy structural design, airbags, sensing technology, advanced seat belt technology,” Olivares said, ticking off the achievements by the automotive industry.

He worked four years in Germany, then a year in the Netherlands – and learned virtual testing.

In 2005, Tomblin asked him to come back to NIAR.

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Olivares is right about aerospace people being cautious about change, Tomblin said.

“When a car engine cuts out, you call a tow truck,” he said. “But when an aircraft engine cuts out, that plane is probably falling to the ground.”

He loved watching Olivares push for new ideas, though.

In his first year back, Olivares was a one-person laboratory. But he worked 15 hours a day, seven days a week, including during rare vacations. Tomblin got messages from him “in daylight and in darkness.”

Olivares now supervises 40 people as director of the NIAR’s Crash Dynamics & Computational Mechanics Laboratory. Much of what he’s done in his pioneering work occurred while working shoulder to shoulder with other NIAR researchers, he said.

“It wasn’t just me.”

He started by creating virtual testing for that most mundane of parts: the passenger seat. Then he moved on to airplane interiors, creating programs so realistic that you can see reflections on walls and windows, how light plays inside a cabin.

Eventually, he said, his researchers will create virtual reality for structures so realistic that no one will build expensive airplane mock-ups anymore.

Tomblin said aerospace engineers now understand how valuable this work is.

“Some of them would still say, ‘I still want to see the (physical) test,’ ” Tomblin said. “But in the past, most simulation testing has always followed physical testing. Gerardo figured out how to show them virtual tests that showed them exactly how their physical tests were going to turn out. They repeatedly saw how the test part always broke in the exact place that Gerardo’s simulation showed.

“They got real excited, too. They even said simulation testing was going to drive more than future testing. Some said, ‘Do you realize what we can do now with future aircraft designs?’ ”

He’s right, Kraft said. In part because of Olivares’ work, designers using virtual models can try literally hundreds of variations with a new design during development.

“With the old way, they might try no more than eight or 10,” he said.

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Olivares is happy here now, though his life took unusual turns to get here.

He was born in Spain to a civil engineer father who, along with his mother, encouraged him to think big. He came to Kansas as a high school exchange student to Burlingame, south of Topeka, and from there saw the university he wanted to study at: WSU.

Then he left, but now he’s back and his boss says he’s changed aviation testing from here.

Crash testing is only part of what his team works on. They are also working on bird strikes and flight testing.

And Olivares has decided the industry needs to dispense with those clunky, old crash dummy models. So he and his team, for their virtual tests, are scanning humans at local hospitals and creating virtual model humans complete with detailed, realistic spines, bones and internal organs.

After he perfects virtual testing, Olivares hopes to use his tools to do another thing that many air passengers say has never been done: He plans to make airplane seats comfortable.

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