Aviation

Here’s how Wichita State could help the Air Force save money, fly its planes longer

Air Force Under Secretary Matthew Donovan, left, listens to Chris Rempe, manager of the reverse engineering and additive manufacturing lab at Wichita State University, during a tour Friday. To Rempe’s right is John Tomblin, WSU’s vice president for research and technology transfer, and Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics.
Air Force Under Secretary Matthew Donovan, left, listens to Chris Rempe, manager of the reverse engineering and additive manufacturing lab at Wichita State University, during a tour Friday. To Rempe’s right is John Tomblin, WSU’s vice president for research and technology transfer, and Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics. The Wichita Eagle

Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research could help the Air Force keep its planes flying longer and at less cost.

That’s what Air Force Under Secretary Matthew Donovan told reporters Friday following tours of NIAR’s facilities at the Kansas Coliseum and Experiential Engineering Building on the Innovation Campus.

“What we saw here . . . was a lot of enthusiasm, and we saw a lot of technology that I think would be able to fit into the Air Force’s path as we go forward,” Donovan said.

Donovan was in Wichita at the invitation of Sen. Jerry Moran. Joining Donovan was Will Roper, Air Force assistant secretary for acquisitions, technology and logistics.

“These are important people in decisions that will be made about what might transpire with the relationship between the Air Force and Wichita State,” Moran said after the tour. “My view is that those goals of having a military that is more efficient, more ready and therefore better capable of protecting us can be achieved by a relationship between Wichita State, NIAR and the Air Force.

“And it also will create significant opportunities for Kansans in their careers and education.”

Donovan and Roper said a key effort for them is to improve the reliability and longevity of aircraft and other equipment in the Air Force inventory, such as the B-52 bomber, by directing more of its funding to that effort.

“One of the challenges the Air Force faces is that for any weapons program or aircraft, 70 percent of the total life-cycle costs occur in the sustainment of that weapon systems or platform,” Donovan said. “So we are very incentivized to find new ways of reducing costs in sustainment, and increasing readiness levels of our fleets.”

Donovan’s takeaway from the NIAR tours was the additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, lab. Additive manufacturing would allow the Air Force to produce an airplane part that’s no longer made and would be costly for it to contract to a third-party company to be manufactured.

“Quarter by quarter we have tens of thousands of parts that no one bids on because there’s very little profit in them,” added Roper. “The ability to make them ourselves would be huge for us, saving money but also increasing readiness.”

Other labs at the Experiential Engineering Building also demonstrated ways the work at NIAR could benefit the Air Force. Roper said the augmented reality lab could “help us train people faster, get them through the pipeline to where they can fix planes at higher levels of proficiency.”

“All this has a chance to have a huge impact, and it was great to see a place like Wichita State where people are living, eating, breathing this every day,” Roper added. “And we’ll look forward to trying to figure out how we partner with them.”

Donovan and Roper also are responsible for oversight of Boeing’s new air refueling tanker, the KC-46A Pegasus, the first one of which is to be delivered to McConnell Air Force Base.

The KC-46’s development program has been fraught with delays and has cost Boeing billions of dollars for missing several key development milestones. The first KC-46 was expected to be delivered sometime this October. But Donovan and Roper said the plane had five “category one deficiencies” that delayed the October delivery date.

Donovan said two of those deficiencies have been downgraded as of earlier this week. But work on correcting or downgrading the others is ongoing, and he wouldn’t say when McConnell will get its first KC-46.

“We’re not going to set a date,” Donovan said. “And I know that you would want a date. But I don’t think we’re quite there yet.”

Jerry Siebenmark: 316-268-6576, @jsiebenmark
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