Testing And Research Underway At New Lightning Lab In Wichita

Apr 11, 2016

When local aircraft manufacturers need to complete testing on the effects of lightning on their materials and components, they used to have to travel to a lab on the East or West Coast.

Now, they can stay in Wichita.

KMUW’s Deborah Shaar takes us inside Wichita State University’s new lightning test lab.

Inside the former Boeing facility in southeast Wichita, they’re creating lightning.

A new generator sits in a cage of six foot-high steel fencing set in the back of a huge hangar. The "Shocker Generator," as it’s called, was built to deliver a high-voltage lightning strike.

Research engineer Matt Wills and technician Susie Bruffett prepare the lightning generator from the control room.
Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW

Research engineer Matt Wills spent last year designing and building this direct-effects lightning generator. It became a fully functional test lab in January.

"Our main goal here is aircraft safety, and we do things for other industries as well to help them with the safety of their equipment," Wills says.

It’s a dangerous lab area, so safety protocols and check lists make sure Wills and technicians like Susie Bruffett follow the exact same process each time they fire up and discharge the generator.

The lightning comes out of a small metal probe and onto the material being tested.
Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW

Small samples of aircraft material, such as a composite wing section, are clamped onto a metal panel inside the generator. Directly above the panel, just inches away, is a round metal probe that’s smaller than a baseball. That’s where the lightning comes from.

It takes several minutes to get three banks of capacitors fully charged and ready to deliver a powerful strike that lasts only seconds.

Even wearing earplugs and safety sunglasses does not take away the sudden shock that comes with this man-made bolt of lightning. You not only see and hear it--of course--but standing more than 12 feet away, you feel the power.

"It makes me jump every time I do it," Wills says.

See the Shocker Generator in action below. As with the audio above, there are loud noises in this video.

What they find after a lightning strike is important. The test shows how well the material can protect against lightning and prevent catastrophic effects to an airplane. Government regulations require this testing in order for the aircraft to be certified to fly.

Lab director Billy Martin says the need for airplane lightning testing increased in the last 25 years as manufacturers started using new materials and adding more electronic controls.

Lab director Billy Martin watches a monitor hooked up to a "scaled-back" version of the Shocker Generator. He has spent his life researching, testing and working on electro-magnetic and environmental effects in aviation.
Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW

"Typically in the past, we built airplanes out of metal, and metal aircraft are inherently immune to the effects of [radio frequency] and really to lightning because of the conductivity associated with it," Martin says. "But now, we are starting to build aircraft out of other materials. And as a result of that, you have to protect that material against lightning and that requires you to make that material appear and look like aluminum."

Martin came to Wichita State’s National Institute on Aviation Research (NIAR) about two years ago after he retired from Cessna. He has spent his life researching, testing and working on electro-magnetic and environmental effects in aviation. As the leading authority on lightning, he wrote the rules and standards for the Federal Aviation Administration’s lightning protection certification.

The only thing that Martin had not done was build a lightning lab--until now.

"Most companies can’t afford to have their own laboratory and can’t afford a Billy Martin and the other experts we have at NIAR," he says. "So having that here locally allows them access to that expertise, allows them access to that laboratory without having to leave the region."

There are only two other commercial labs in the U.S. that do the same type of direct-effects testing that’s done at the NIAR lightning lab.

Research engineer Matt Wills holds a test panel after it has gone through the Shocker Generator. The small hole near the upper right corner is where the man-made lightning strike hit.
Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW

Martin says all the expertise and resources that come with a university-based aviation research center gives their clients a competitive advantage.

"If you go to a normal commercial test lab, you hand them a test article, they run a test and they hand you the data," he says. "At NIAR, we do a lot more than that. We help you in your design. We help you in your certification. And when things go bad--which, things do go bad--we help you fix them."

So far, the lightning lab has done testing for NASA, the FAA, Cessna and a few private aerospace-related companies. There are several projects waiting to get started, and other clients are in the wings.

WSU junior Carol Viluethpad operates a smaller lightning generator at the NIAR lab. She runs tests and does in-depth analysis for the lab; director Billy Martin says the real-world experience benefits both students and researchers.
Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW

Education is part of NIAR’s mission, so engineering students are involved in some projects, including one for the FAA. They’re testing fasteners from inside an airplane fuel tank to determine a sparking threshold to make sure fuel doesn’t ignite.

The generator for this test is a scaled-down version of the Shocker Generator, but it still packs a punch.

Wichita State junior Carol Viluethpad works at NIAR just about every day running tests and doing in-depth data analysis.

"It’s been pretty cool to be able to explain these things to your friends and it’s like, 'What do you do for a living?' and it’s like, 'Oh, right now, I’m just shooting lightning,'" she says. "It’s pretty fun. A student can actually make this and everything we are doing actually makes a difference."

The scaled-down version of the Shocker Generator still packs a punch.
Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW

Lab director Billy Martin says this hands-on experience also benefits the research teams because students often bring a unique perspective to the work.

"Kids are very much more on the cutting edge of technology, so that innovation they bring to the laboratory and that freshness helps keep us innovative," he says. "And it’s also extremely beneficial to them and to the industry at large because when they graduate, they are already practicing engineers."

Most of the early lightning research and testing was done for on-the-ground projects, to protect things like power lines and transformers and even trains from a damaging strike. Airplanes came later.

And the industry is evolving once again. With a growing number of wind turbines and drones in the skies, the need to protect them from lightning damage is also growing.

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Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.