T-38 pilots prepare for takeoff at Whiteman Air Force Base in 2011. Credit: USAF Photo / Senior Airman Kenny Holston

Located just 15 miles from Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston and 7 miles from JBSA-Lackland, Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) is once again applying its scientific expertise in support of the U.S. military. 

SwRI, which has a longstanding history of working with the armed forces, announced Tuesday it has received a $4.5 million contract from the U.S. Department of Defense to test how various construction materials behave under impacts, blasts, and shocks. This comes a day after the institute announced it received a $4 million subcontract from Sabreliner Aviation to maintain a fleet of supersonic aircraft used by the U.S. Air Force to train pilots. 

Sidney Chocron, manager of SwRI’s computational mechanics section, will lead the studies testing plastics, ceramics, metals, and other materials commonly used in construction of military bases, embassies, and other structures in foreign territories.

“The question we’re striving to answer is whether a building or bridge will be safe against a terrorist attack or any kind of significant ballistic event,” Chocron said in a prepared statement.

Chocron said he and his team will create accurate computer models by exposing the materials to extreme pressures, temperatures, speeds, and other conditions.

Exposing building materials to extreme conditions can be difficult for a computer to simulate, Chocron said. At the same time, experiments can be expensive, but “if you’re building a valuable structure that might be attacked, you want to be certain it won’t fail.”

Chocron will take a “building-block approach” to obtain the most accurate computer models, first testing small specimens in a lab and using that data for larger-scale computations. He and his team then will perform larger-scale experiments and compare the computer models to the data collected to ensure better accuracy, he explained. 

“We need to feed the computers with precise information of the conditions under which a material will crack or fail,” Chocron said.

Chocron, who’s worked at SwRI for the past 18 years, said he has already begun work on the project, which is expected to finish in 2022.

“We are really excited about pushing the boundaries on what we know about materials,” Chocron said. 

Under the subcontract from Sabreliner Aviation, SwRI will help to extend the life of a fleet of T-38 Talons, using software to analyze the growth of cracks in the aircraft materials and predict where.

SwRI, under Sabreliner’s prime contract with the U.S. Air Force, will help maintain 1,100 of the two-seater supersonic training planes so they can continue flying until 2034 or longer, according to a press statement by SwRI. 

Small cracks can be repaired – but larger ones could be dangerous. If larger ones arise, components on the plane might need to be replaced or the entire aircraft retired, said David Wieland, manager of SwRI’s aerospace structures section and the project’s leader.

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

The project is part of a wide-ranging effort at SwRI to maintain military aircraft for years to come. Earlier this year, SwRI received $12 million in funding to redesign critical systems for the B-1B Lancer supersonic bomber and $1 million to continue structural integrity work to maintain the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II.

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.