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SwRI Gets $4M to Maintain Supersonic Aircraft

The institute has worked with the Air Force to maintain the structural integrity of the T-38 since the 1980s.

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Southwest Research Institute has received a $4 million subcontract from Sabreliner Aviation to maintain the integrity of a fleet of supersonic aircraft the U.S. Air Force uses to train pilots.

SwRI, under Sabreliner’s prime contract with the U.S. Air Force, will support many of the USAF ASIP activities such as usage monitoring, developing inspection methods for the fleet as well as component testing and analysis to ensure the aircraft structure remains viable.

The T-38 Talon, first introduced in 1961, is a two-seat supersonic training aircraft the Air Force plans to continue flying until 2034 or longer. SwRI has worked with the Air Force to maintain the structural integrity of the T-38 since the 1980s. 

“It’s important to keep these planes maintained and safe to fly,” said David Wieland, manager of SwRI’s Aerospace Structures section and the project’s leader. “As part of Sabreliner’s team, we are performing tests and analysis to determine how often the aircraft need to be inspected.” 

To support these efforts, SwRI uses crack growth analysis software to predict where cracks or other integrity issues might arise and help to extend the life of the aircraft. Sabreliner’s structural teardown capabilities, including detailed root cause analyses, are used to verify these crack growth analysis software efforts. 

“We look for cracks and structural degradation that would endanger the aircraft,” Wieland said. “Small cracks can be repaired, but something larger could be dangerous. In that event, the structure must be replaced, or the entire aircraft will be retired.” 

The project is part of a wide-ranging effort at SwRI to maintain military aircraft that have been in service for several decades. Just this year, the Institute received $12 million in funding to redesign critical systems for the B-1B Lancer supersonic bomber and another $1 million to continue structural integrity work to maintain the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II.

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