How the FAA Tech Center keeps us safe in the air
I don't know about you, but smart, inventive people, who discover and design innovations for the common good, inspire me. In the first part of my diary last week, I described my morning tour at the William J. Hughes Technical Center of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in Egg Harbor Township. It was especially exciting because I learned of so many behind-the-scenes elements of the aviation system's communications and efficiency programs.
The second half of my tour focused on traveling safety. Our afternoon agenda took the group to research centers developing designs to protect both the aircraft and its passengers during flight.
First stop was the Airflow Induction Test Facility, complete with a Subsonic Wind Tunnel. Runway sign stability, durability of inflatable life rafts and hand-held fire extinguishers are among the things tested there.
I have traveled tens of thousands of miles in the last 20 years for both work and recreation, but always cringe whenever there is turbulence. I still close my eyes and hold my breath if there is more than a mild bump, although I know that turbulence is an expected part of flying.
It was reassuring to learn about the Low Turbulence, Low-Speed Wind Tunnel's electrically driven simulation, reaching speeds of zero to 160 mile per hour winds. By accurately measuring six key components of maintaining aircraft stability, including lift, yaw (twisting sideways), pitch (movement up and down) and others, the lab can research and recommend safety upgrades. Manufacturers build aircraft wings with the ability to bend almost straight up.
The Environmental Test Chamber measures preset temperature, humidity and air pressure conditions of a flight from takeoff to landing. The chamber studies various fire conditions at particular altitudes, wing ice detectors and other environmental sensors.
However, as we all unfortunately know, accidents in the air happen, and scientists at the Hughes Center are committed to not only making flying safe, but ensuring that passengers have the best possible protections and escape procedures in the event of an emergency.
Scientists and engineers research techniques to raise the standards for interior safeguards and for aircraft crashworthiness at both the Full-Scale Fire Test Facility and the Dynamic Vertical Drop Test Facility.
In the fire-test facility, two aircraft fuselages-a Boeing 707 and a DC-10 - may be configured to simulate any fire scenario. Testing of large fire pools under controlled situations is conducted in the giant lab, which has a 40-foot high fire-hardened ceiling. One current test project addresses safety issues facing future double-decker planes.
Since the mid 1990s, aircraft testing resulted in regulations that have improved such things as cargo fire detection with better floor proximity lighting, radiant heat resistant evacuation slides and burn-through resistant cargo liners.
There have been several mandated requirements on American aircraft as well, including changes in seat cushion fabric to improve fire resistance.fuel tank insulation. These recommendations resulted from the investigation of
The Drop Test Facility exhibited the fuselage of an actual commuter airplane that had been assembled, hoisted and dropped from a specially built structure. Al, our guide, relayed the theory of measuring the amount of "give" or "energy" in the crash of a plane. For example, seats with the most flexibility will be able to sustain more damage and protect a passenger during impact.
He invited us to enter and inspect the crash dummies seated inside. I can say it was a pretty mangled mess, but clearly certain seats seemed almost untouched.
The FAA is examining different locations and angles for wing placement. The wings of that particular aircraft model are above the windows, making the seats under them more dangerous in a crash because of the impact to the ceiling.
The individual circumstances of an accident determine the consequences. Theoretically, passengers can face the same risk whether sitting in the front or back of the aircraft.
Our final stop was the National Airport Pavement Test Facility, the first of its kind in the world. The Boeing Company contributed $7 million of the $21 million price tag to construct one of the East Coast's longest enclosed buildings.
As aircraft size and weight continue to increase, runway conditions may deteriorate. The site helps the FAA set standards for airport runway strengths, capable of accommodating future super-jumbo jets.