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World’s Largest Deep Freeze Reopens

February 1, 1998

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (AP) _ The world’s biggest deep freeze, which also can mimic desert sun, jungle humidity and other weather conditions, is back in business after a $75 million renovation.

And much of McKinley Climatic Laboratory’s business is kinder and gentler than before the Air Force closed the facility for a three-year makeover.

Once devoted almost entirely to testing weapons and other military equipment, the lab is paying a peacetime dividend by aggressively pursuing commercial business for the first time in its 51-year history.

Civilian automobiles, tires and aircraft are among the items tested since the lab reopened last June.

``We’ve done some commercial work for many years, but it’s just been extremely, extremely small, mainly because the government was not very commercial friendly,″ said laboratory director Kirk Velasco.

``If your item was not at all related to some defense need, OK, you had to go through a ton of paperwork,″ he said. ``People just didn’t want to bother.″

But the government’s attitude has changed, and federal laboratories now welcome commercial users.

The Air Force Development Test Center at this Florida Panhandle base distributes a colorful brochure offering the services of a dozen laboratories and other facilities, including the climatic lab.

The climatic lab offers commercial customers its full range of testing capability. It has a temperature range of 165 to minus-65 degrees and can whip up hail, sand and dust storms or monsoon-like rains of 24 inches per hour.

``We can create any type of climatic conditions that you would want to operate in,″ Velasco said. ``We can’t duplicate a tornado or a hurricane although we can give you some high winds. If you want to try a 100 mph wind, we can do that for you.″

Customers can choose from six chambers of various sizes. The biggest _ 252 feet wide, 261 feet long and 70 feet high _ can hold a C-5A Galaxy cargo plane, the Air Force’s largest aircraft.

Although some private facilities can handle items as big as a car or truck, the main chamber’s only competition is nature itself.

Main chamber fees are about $8,000 to $10,000 a day depending on the type of testing. It cost Goodyear and subsidiary Kelly-Springfield about $250,000 for a month’s worth of tire tests on snow and ice late last year.

``Our snow consistency is extremely good compared to what you get out there in the real world,″ Velasco said.

Canada’s Bombardier Inc. used the main chamber in January for Federal Aviation Administration certification of its Global Express, a business jet that can seat up to about 30 passengers, in various weather conditions.

General Motors tested autos in a smaller chamber also used by Boeing in September to obtain FAA engine-starting certification for its nine-passenger MD-600N helicopter at minus-40 degrees.

Before the lab was available, civilian aircraft generally had to be flown to where it was hot, cold, icy or snow-blown enough outside for testing.

``It definitely saved us time,″ said Boeing project engineer Jim Kuchan of Mesa, Ariz. ``We weren’t quite ready to fly that far north to get the environment we needed.″

Bombardier plans to return later this year with its Dash-8 commuter turboprop. There have been talks with Seattle-based Boeing about testing commercial jets but no commitment yet, Velasco said.

Military testing still remains the lab’s top priority.

The Air Force’s new C-130J Hercules transport and the Navy’s P-3 Orion antisubmarine plane have been in for tests since the lab reopened. The lab also is used for missiles, tanks and other weapons.

Most testing is done for more mundane items such as tents and shelters. A huge shelter for B-2 stealth bombers will be tested later this year.

Military and civilian customers alike are getting a more efficient, capable and environment-friendly facility as a result of the renovation. Better insulation has cut electric bills by about a third, Velasco said. They used to run up to $120,000 a month.

The amount of cold air pumped into the chamber has been doubled, meaning engines can run at higher power or for longer periods. Cooling equipment that required ozone-depleting Freon has been replaced with a system using a more benign refrigerant, the same type used in home air conditioners.

The lab opened in 1947 and was named for Lt. Col. Ashley McKinley, who had proposed its construction, after his death in 1970. It was used for 47 years before renovation became necessary.

Humid outside air had been leaking through deteriorating walls, causing huge icicles to form on the ceiling. After a falling icicle damaged an F-117 stealth fighter, maintenance workers began using a cherry picker every other day or so to remove them.

The renovation cured that problem and extended the life of the lab. Velasco predicted it could last another 47 years.

Tests often are scheduled far in advance. The big chamber is booked eight straight months in 2001-2002 for military equipment, including the Air Force’s F-22 Raptor fighter and the Army’s Comanche helicopter.

But there are plenty of scheduling gaps, particularly for smaller chambers, and the Air Force wants to fill them with civilian customers.

``If those gaps start getting bigger,″ Velasco said, ``then we’ll start to push the commercial side even more.″

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