What Caused 5-Year Delay in $34M Air Force Project?

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE -- The start-up of a $34.4 million pilot training and aerospace research centrifuge later this year at Wright-Patterson will end years of delays for the high-technology and complex project, officials say.

Air Force officials say they expect to approach the contractor, Environmental Tectonics Corp. of Southampton, Pa., to go over the delays.

Under $92 million in government contracts, the company assembled the centrifuge, four research altitude chambers and the Navy's disorientation research device, all at Wright-Patterson which will become the center of gravity for aerospace medical research in the Defense Department.

The centrifuge was originally targeted to begin government testing in 2012, but the complexity of the system lead to postponed starting date, officials said.

"ETC is as committed as the Air Force is as fully delivering the capability of the system and they've been a good partner in that," said Col. William Mosle, the Human Systems Division chief at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson. "There have been technical challenges. The system should have already delivered."

An ETC representative said the company would not comment for this article.

The $38.3 million altitude chambers, which simulate altitude at 100,000 feet and temperatures that range from 67 degrees below zero to 150 degrees above, were supposed to be turned over to the Air Force as a "turn-key" operation in 2013, a prior company announcement said. Wright-Patterson officials said testing of the chambers, which were installed at the base, likely won't finish until next year.

The Navy's $19.5 million disorientation research device was finally commissioned last June -- five years beyond the delivery date.

Building three one-of-a-kind devices was no small task, according to Scott Fleming, the Air Force's 711th Human Performance Wing centrifuge program manager.

"This is a big job for anybody, and they're a small business, less than 300 employees," Fleming said of ETC. "It's not trivial."

Some of the project delays were due to the sheer size of the equipment being moved, installed and integrated in the massive system, officials say.

The high-tech centrifuge is driven by a 240,000-pound, electric-powered, direct drive motor able to produce 4,700 horsepower. The 31-foot long arm weighs more than 30,000 pounds alone.

"The physical integration was very challenging for the size and the scope of the system," Mosle said.

In one temporary setback, a shipping container with the giant motor inside was damaged in transit when it arrived at Wright-Patterson in 2011. Although no damage was found to the motor, it had to be sent to Cleveland for inspection, adding weeks to the final delivery.

The complexity of the computer software also took longer than originally anticipated to meet all the demands of the research program, and powering the centrifuge and the research altitude chambers on the same electrical system posed challenges as well.

"With great capability," said Mosle, "there was a great deal of complexity."

Although the original price tag has remained unchanged, under the contract with ETC, taxpayers paid $2 million a year since July 2011 to lease an old centrifuge and research altitude chambers at Brooks City-Base, Texas, according to the Air Force. The Air Force pulled out of Brooks City as part of the 2005 round of military base closures.

The centrifuge itself required a major construction effort.

Crews dug a 50-feet-wide by 50-feet-long hole that was more than 30 feet deep and contains more than 1,000 cubic yards of concrete.

Six-inch wide, 14-foot long bolts anchor the massive motor to the concrete while giant cables with copper wires power the assembly.

As more tests are conducted on the centrifuge, and officials prepare for its long-awaited completion, they can't help but marvel at what they are witnessing.

"I don't know whether we'll ever build something like this again," Mosle said.

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