Wichita — Wade Davis and his crew at Wichita State University are busy shaking, freezing, cooking and squeezing.
But what the group does is far from home economics.
Davis, manager of environmental testing labs at National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State, heads a team that makes flying safer for everyone. He is helping oversee an expansion, scheduled for the next few months, that will add to the experiments they can do at the institute and make it one of the premier testing sites in the world.
The institute subjects aviation materials and parts to the harshest conditions in hopes of preventing unexplainable accidents from in the air.
Scientists take new aviation materials given to them by engineers and go as far as shooting hot amps through the parts. They try to blow things up and make pieces go electronically dead.
When the new labs come, Davis will be able to grow fungus in the new fungus chamber and put it into electronics. The work could someday save pilots who park planes in moist climates.
The new salt fog, altitude and environmental chambers each will test parts under various conditions. Off campus, at a location not yet determined, a lightning lab will allow researchers to strike the latest inventions with 3 million volts.
"My job is to imagine what hasn't happened yet," Davis said. "When you work here, you know all the things that could go wrong. When you consider the electronics and moving parts, and how a plane shakes all day with microvibrations, and that it gets struck by lightning. ... It's a miracle that airplanes stay in the air."
The scientists at the institute help make that miracle happen, he said.
"We test everything from the avionics to the materials to the stereos to the coffee pot on the aircraft," said Davis' boss, John Tomblin. "You remember the fuss some years ago, about the military spending maybe $5,000 on a coffee pot, and how come they didn't just buy a pot from Wal-Mart? Well, a coffee pot on an airplane might start a fire that could bring your plane down. The rules in the air are different, so you need a coffee pot that will work specific to that aircraft and the conditions it operates in. We help test everything."