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Unique Research Program Aims to Give Legacy Aircraft New Life

June 26, 2023
The National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) and the National Institute for Aviation Research have created STRATO-T, a program that will test new technology on the Boeing KC-135 refueling tanker to reduce legacy aircraft operations costs.

The National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) and Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) have partnered with the U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) and the U.S. Air Force (USAF) Air Mobility Command (AMC) to create a KC-135 Stratotanker innovation testbed in Wichita, Kansas.

The Boeing aircraft, an American military aerial refueling tanker aircraft was developed from the Boeing 367-80 prototype, alongside the Boeing 707 airliner.

A retired KC-135 was delivered to NIAR in Wichita to establish the Sustainment Technologies, Research, and Automation for Transformative Operations Testbed (STRATO-T) program where it will be used for government, industry, and academia to study, develop, and test new technology for reducing legacy aircraft operations costs by exploring innovation in hardware, software, operations, and maintenance of large military aircraft—with high potential for military/civilian dual technology use. The aircraft will still have in-flight representatives for non-flying evaluations and studies for innovative sustainment, energy efficiency, and aircraft automation concepts.

“We applaud the joint efforts of NCMS, USTRANSCOM, and AMC for this innovative approach to sustainment for the KC-135 fleet,” said John Tomblin, WSU senior vice president for Industry and Defense Programs and NIAR executive director. “The opportunity for our staff and students to support these efforts with a functional KC-135 is incomparable. We’re confident this program will demonstrate how leading technology can be used to sustain legacy aircraft and pave the way for additional aircraft sustainment programs.”

STRATO-T will be located at Air Capital Flight Line in a stretch of property near the McConnell Air Force Base, which includes shared runway access.

In addition to using NIAR's digital engineering knowledge for these studies, STRATO-T will also generate important KC-135 digital aircraft models to help improve the long-term use of this air refueling tanker. This research and development agreement is creating a special facility specifically for innovators to test new aviation engineering and technology.

Acting as USTRANSCOM’s and AMC’s intermediary, NCMS will lead the effort to identify technologies and solution providers that have the potential to significantly improve the sustainment of the KC-135 and other aviation assets across the U.S. Air Force. The development of autonomy technology is a priority for the program.

“STRATO-T will facilitate projects from government, industry, and academic partners that apply and advance technologies such as autonomy, digital engineering, predictive data analysis, and advanced manufacturing,” said Lisa Strama, President and CEO of NCMS. “Projects that harness these technologies have the potential to extend aircraft lifespans. NCMS is honored to collaborate with USTRANSCOM, AMC, and NIAR to establish and develop STRATO-T.”

According to the program, the retired KC-135 aircraft is around 60 years old and was slated for long-term desert storage. It still has decades-old physical/structural and electronic characteristics from years past, allowing a truly unique opportunity for researchers to gain the impacts of generations of maintenance, upgrade, environmental exposure, and global operational use on legacy aircraft.

The NCMS expects the program to achieve successful applications of new technology and systems integration requirements on legacy aircraft to prove their value in use. Researchers will develop and transfer technical information related to extending the lifespan of legacy aircraft, modernizing aircraft systems, and exploring innovations in operations and maintenance.

STRATO-T will advance technology readiness levels including aircraft automation, advanced manufacturing, maintenance & repair techniques, and make possible information collection for human system development, predictive maintenance, aircraft threat mitigation, and other uses.