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WICHITA, Kan. (Tribune News Service) — Researchers at Wichita State University have been delivered a retired fuselage from an Air Force B-1B bomber to study the effects of 35 years of flight on wear-and-tear.

The university's National Institute for Aviation Research, or NIAR, will disassemble the aircraft fuselage to better inform maintenance of the aging supersonic jet. School officials announced the work with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center B-1 Division in a Monday news release.

"Wichita State's partnership with the B-1 Division supports sustainment efforts for legacy weapon systems, like the B-1, that will immediately impact the preparedness of the warfighter," said John Tomblin, Wichita State's senior vice president for industry and defense and NIAR's executive director, in a statement. "In addition, these programs provide applied learning opportunities for Wichita State graduate and undergraduate students, which, in turn, allows the military to grow its future workforce."

The WSU team will take apart the fuselage and perform inspections, looking for cracks and corrosion in areas that have been inaccessible since leaving the factory.

"A complete teardown and comprehensive inspection program will provide the B-1 Division a unique understanding of the current condition of the aging fleet," officials said in the news release. "The inspection results will allow the B-1 Division to proactively inspect the fleet, design repairs in advance of the fleet need, and more comprehensively manage the fleet of aging bombers."

NIAR is also continuing work on creating a "digital twin" of the plane by scanning dismantled pieces to create a three-dimensional virtual rendering. The university's digital twin program has also been used by the Army's Black Hawk helicopters as part of ongoing maintenance and sustainability efforts.

'The Bone'

The B-1B Lancer, nicknamed "The Bone," is a long-range heavy bomber that was originally intended for nuclear attacks on the Soviet Union. The aircraft have been stripped of the ability to carry nuclear weapons due to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties.

Wichita State is getting tail number 86-0101, which was known as "Heavy Metal," according to a Federation of American Scientists listing.

That unit was manufactured by Boeing in 1986. It was divested from service in April, with its final flight ending at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City. The fuselage was selected for the WSU research program because its high flight time compared to other airframes recently divested from the fleet.

"NIAR is excited to continue to support the B-1 Division's mission of keeping the aging bombers operating safely through 2040," said Melinda Laubach-Hock, NIAR's B-1 program manager and director of sustainment. "Advancements toward proactively managing the fleet with inspections, repairs and maintenance will directly improve mission readiness on this key military asset."

Extensive use, maintenance cost

Decades of service around the world — including extensive use in the Middle East — have taken their toll. Still, the Air Force continues to refer to the B-1B as "the backbone of America's long-range bomber force."

In February, four of the bombers were deployed to Norway to conduct missions in the Arctic Circle in international airspace near Russia.

Last month, a B-1B from Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota became the first operational unit from the base to conduct a refueling mission with a KC-46A. The May 17 mission involved one of the Pegasus tankers from McConnell Air Force Base.

The newer KC-46 tankers are slowly replacing the aging fleet of KC-135 Stratotankers. McConnell received its first Pegasus tankers in January 2019 after years of delays.

Despite its continued service, fewer and fewer Lancers are in the fleet as maintenance issues catch up with the aging aircraft.

In February, the Air Force retired 17 of the bombers, leaving 45 in the active fleet. Four of the 17 retired aircraft are being kept in a reclaimable condition.

"Beginning to retire legacy bombers, to make way for the B-21 Raider, is something we have been working toward for some time," said Gen. Timothy Ray, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, in a statement. "Due to the wear and tear placed on the B-1 fleet over the past two decades, maintaining these bombers would cost tens of millions of dollars per aircraft to get back to status quo. And that's just to fix the problems we know about. We're just accelerating planned retirements."

The Raider remains under development by Northrop Grumman. The company has said first deliveries are expected in the mid-2020s.

"Retiring aircraft with the least amount of usable life allows us to prioritize the health of the fleet and crew training. ... The divestiture of the B-1 is necessary in order for the Air Force to create an even more lethal, agile and sustainable force with a greater competitive edge for tomorrow's fight," Ray said.

Opportunity for the Air Capital

In April, the Air Force temporarily grounded all B-1B bombers for inspection after an emergency incident at Ellsworth Air Force Base. The "safety stand-down" involved the aircraft's fuel pump filter housing, the Rapid City Journal reported.

But maintenance problems are not new.

In 2019, about 11% of the B-1B fleet was mission-ready, Business Insider reported at the time. The fleet was overextended and under-maintained, Gen. John Hyten said in a congressional hearing as he asked for additional maintenance funding.

"It's not a young airplane," Ray said at the time, according to Air Force Magazine. "Wear and tear is part of the things we find."

That's where Wichita State's aerospace research abilities bring opportunities to the Air Capital. Angie Tymofichuk, the deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for logistics and product support, lauded NIAR when the digital twin program for the bomber was announced a year ago.

"As our fleets age, exceed design life, face obsolescence issues and more, we must be innovative in our response and NIAR's unique capabilities and experience provide us with just such groundbreaking opportunity," she said.

(c)2021 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)

Visit The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.) at www.kansas.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

A B-1B Lancer assigned to the 37th Bomb Squadron taxis on the flightline at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., July 16, 2020.
A B-1B Lancer assigned to the 37th Bomb Squadron taxis on the flightline at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., July 16, 2020. (Airman Quentin Marx/U.S. Air Force)

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