The National Institute for Aviation Research is expanding its testing laboratories again. And local leaders hope this move could help bring back lost aviation jobs.
NIAR is an aviation testing lab and a part of Wichita State University. NIAR has struck an agreement, WSU leaders said Thursday, to lease 35,000 square feet of space in buildings that were abandoned when Boeing left its manufacturing campus in south Wichita.
Johnny Stevens, a longtime Wichita developer and part of the group that will lease the property to WSU, said this could lead to bigger things for Wichita. He said he and his business partners in Air Capital Flight Line – Steve Clark and Dave Murfin – own most of the 314 acres and 1.9 million square feet of office, storage and hangar space that Boeing used to operate.
Flight Line, Stevens said, has been trying to lure airplane modification companies to Wichita.
“We have been talking to some large (airplane) modification centers trying to get them to move their operations here,” Stevens said. “Having NIAR out here is a big asset for us. To do modification work, they need someone like NIAR to do everything from stress to electromagnetic testing to get FAA approval. Being able to work with NIAR right beside them, with access to that airfield right beside them, could make this much more attractive.”
“We’ve been working every day trying to bring new companies into the area here,” Stevens said. “We haven’t landed a big bird yet, but we are working at it. ” “So having NIAR out there is a big deal.”
The move will give NIAR space to work with commercial and military aircraft. The former Boeing plant is on South Oliver from 31st to 47th Street and is near McConnell Air Force Base.
The move will likely make Wichita more attractive to aerospace in yet another way, said John Tomblin, NIAR’s executive director. Most electromagnetic testing of aircraft components is done by testing parts in test lab chambers, Tomblin said.
There are only a few places in the world where full electromagnetic testing can be done on an entire aircraft. With NIAR’s move out to the big buildings once owned by Boeing, Wichita now becomes one of those rare places, and a national asset, Tomblin said.
“We’ll now not only have the space to do it but the equipment; so we’ll be able to fly any big aircraft into McConnell Air Force Base now, and roll it up to this lab and have what we call full aircraft threat electromagnetic testing,” Tomblin said.
This opens up the possibility that NIAR could do testing on large commercial aircraft and large military aircraft as well, WSU official said.
NIAR doesn’t have any military testing contracts of that kind now, Tomblin said. But now they have the capability to apply for those contracts.
“It will allow us to target a broader market – to expand beyond general aviation testing into the commercial transport and military aircraft markets,” said Paul Jonas, director of NIAR’s Environmental Test Labs, in a prepared statement from WSU.
NIAR is one of the more important aircraft safety testing organizations in the world, and Tomblin and WSU president John Bardo have often used that as a marketing tool as they try to attract more jobs and economic boost to the south central Kansas region.
NIAR’s labs were running out of space, WSU officials said.
NIAR plans to begin relocating its Environmental Test and Electromagnetic Effects Labs at the former Boeing location next month, Tomblin said.
NIAR’s Environmental Test and Electromagnetic Effects Labs employ 17 full-time employees and nine student lab techs, WSU officials said in a prepared statement. The labs perform research, testing and certification for electronic devices and other aircraft components for conditions including temperature, altitude, humidity, shock, salt fog, lightning and effects associated with exposure to radio frequency, WSU’s statement said.
NIAR’s new lab will include updated test and research areas, new office and meeting space and all of the lab’s current D0-160 test capabilities and new direct effects of lightning testing, Tomblin said.
Stevens and WSU would not disclose the terms of the lease Thursday.
This is Wichita State’s second lease agreement with Stevens, who bought the Kansas Coliseum complex from Sedgwick County in 2011. Stevens renovated it into an aircraft full-scale structural test facility for NIAR.
Those moves are only the beginning, Stevens and Tomblin said. It’s likely that NIAR will announce that more NIAR labs will expand out to Air Capital Flight Line space in the next few months, Stevens and Tomblin said.
Boeing announced in January 2012 that it would close its Wichita operations and move work to Oklahoma City, San Antonio and the Seattle area. Wichita operations ceased last summer. In July, the company sold thousands of items at a public auction. Air Capital Flight Line bought the 314-acre former Boeing site Dec. 31.