Retired B-1B arrives in Wichita to create a digital twin

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  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

A B-1B Lancer set a new record for under-the-radar approaches, by taking to the highway to travel from Texas to Wichita Jan. 25-28.

The B-1 was transported from Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, on an 18-wheeler to Wichita State University’s (WSU) National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) as part of a research partnership.

The bomber was trimmed down for transport, minus wings and tail assembly, which enabled it to fit under most traffic lights. From Dyess, it travelled through the Texas Panhandle towns of Happy, Canyon, Tulia, Borger, Spearman, Silverton, and Perryton, then into Oklahoma and through smaller highways in Kansas, including the towns of Coldwater and Andover. Local law enforcement assisted with traffic control along the route, as well as state Highway Patrol officers.

Now in Wichita, the bomber will be used by NIAR to create a virtual B-1 Bomber that could help the Air Force predict the future of its supersonic bombers.

The project, sponsored by the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s B-1 Division, will study the effects of flight operations on aircraft structures. The NIAR team will fully disassemble the aircraft, scan every individual structural part down to the nuts and bolts, and reassemble the virtual aircraft parts to create a digital twin. The program will provide the Air Force with unprecedented information on the B-1B, allowing for the evaluation of damage or changes to aircraft usage in order to repair, modify design or structural inspection intervals, and/or reevaluate the design life of the aircraft.

“We are taking a real aircraft from the Boneyard (309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona), and it will fly again in a digital format,” said Lt. Col. Joseph Lay, B-1 program manager.

The project includes digital twin, fractography, external and internal loads, finite element models (FEM) and validation work. In order to validate the FEM and define external load sets, NIAR is analyzing full-scale test data along with actual flight data from a supporting test program at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma.

“Through the scanning process, we will discover all the places that saw structural failure or damage. It will create a living health record for the B-1,” Lay said. “Then we will be able to apply data from aircraft in the field to help us predict areas that are more likely to have structural issues. This living virtual model of the B-1’s structure will be superimposed with layers of maintenance data, test/inspection results, and analysis tools, which can be integrated over the aircraft’s life cycle.”

Another benefit of the digital twin is for testing prototypes of new parts and repairs.

“We have never had the ability to prototype a repair part,” Lay said. “With this, we will be able to design a part and fit test it in the digital world before we manufacture the real thing. The ability to do a virtual fit check could be very beneficial.”

The result is an environment that provides the best possible aircraft sustainment and fleet readiness. While this project specifically involves the B-1 Lancer, it will serve as a pilot program for the development and validation of a digital twin strategy to support aircraft that are in similar data situations.

The digital twin environment will modernize sustainment and training. Rather than interpreting engineering drawings, maintenance personnel will have the ability to look at the structure surrounding an inspection or repair area in 3D before ever touching the airframe.

“You would even be able to put on some goggles and take a virtual walk through the airplane, see how parts fit together and interact with each other without ever having to leave the office or your telework environment. We expect to learn a lot about this platform,” Lay said.

Members of NIAR are thrilled to have the B-1 at WSU and look forward to supporting the Air Force and its Airmen.

"We are extremely excited to begin this program with the Air Force in support of the B1", said John Tomblin, WSU senior vice president for Industry and Defense Programs and executive director of NIAR. "The ability to provide support to Airmen and increase readiness is a primary objective of this program and we hope that the results of this can impact future maintenance and sustainment for this aircraft as well as provide a platform for decades to come."

The B-1 may only be the beginning, as the Air Force and NIAR look to the future and consider what other airframes may be next to receive a digital twin.

“As our fleets age, exceed design life, face obsolescence issues and more, we must be innovative in our response and NIAR’s unique capabilities and experience provide us with just such groundbreaking opportunity,” said Angie Tymofichuk, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for Logistics and Product Support. “Moreover, beyond the B-1B, we look to leverage the proven methodologies across the larger Air Force legacy portfolio.”

NIAR has been working on the B-1 since receiving its first bomber in 2020.  This latest acquisition gives NIAR three B-1s to work with. To date, NIAR has delivered more than 24,000 digital models and developed engineering tools being used to aid in the management of the fleet.

This latest bomber is tail number 85-0089, also known as the Midnight Prowler. That aircraft experienced an engine failure and fire in 2022 that ended its flying days. But it will continue to serve in a new manner, with WSU’s National Institute for Aviation Research.