The Air Force is stripping a B-1B bomber down to its bolts in order to make a digital copy

  • A B-1B Lancer bomber has been carted 1,000 miles from the Air Force's boneyard in Arizona to Wichita State University in Kansas to be stripped down and its parts scanned one by one.
  • The six-year project is expected to produce a digital twin of the bomber, allowing maintainers to better understand how the aircraft experiences wear and tear and how its parts can be improved.
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One B-1B Lancer bomber is having a lengthy breakdown — but for good reason.

In partnership with Wichita State University's National Institute of Aviation Research, or NIAR, airmen with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center have been stripping the supersonic heavy payload bomber down to its nuts and bolts and then scanning each part into a computer to make a perfect virtual copy of the aircraft, the Air Force said in a recent release.

The effort to make a B-1 digital twin — which began in April and will take six years to complete — will help maintainers understand which parts disintegrate fastest given the aircraft's operational wear and tear and how they can be improved.

"Through the scanning process, we will discover all the places that saw structural failure or damage. It will create a living medical record for the B-1," Lt. Col. Joseph Lay, B-1 Engineering Branch material leader, said in a release.

"We have been scanning the wings, and the wing scans have been helping us understand how to build new repairs for some of the cracks that we have seen in the wings themselves," he said of the aircraft, tail number 85-0092.

The bomber, which retired to the Boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, in 2002, was manufactured in 1985 and last served with the 128th Bomb Squadron at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia. It made the 1,000-mile journey from Arizona to Kansas via flatbed truck for the deconstruction.

The digital twin will help maintainers expedite results and procedures for other B-1s, Lay said.

"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," he explained. "This living virtual model of the B-1's structure will be superimposed with layers of maintenance data, test [and] inspection results, and analysis tools, which can be integrated over the aircraft's life cycle."

Lay added, "We are also currently developing inspection techniques and repairs for areas on the upper fuselage and sharing that data back with the [manufacturer]."

The B-1, originally built by Rockwell, is now a Boeing Co. craft.

The collected data on the wings and fuselage will give maintainers more understanding of "fatigue damage in those areas," Lay said.

The B-1 has the ability to climb thousands of feet into the air, kick back its wings — thanks to its variable swept-wing design — and dive low, following the Earth like a jet ski skimming water.

However, last year, officials began telling B-1 pilots to cut back on the low-altitude terrain-following capability, known as TERFLW mode, in an effort to preserve the aircraft's structure.

The B-1 digital twin is just the latest effort to address the bomber's maintenance.

For example, the Lancer was one of the first aircraft named to the service's predictive maintenance experiment, headed by Air Force Materiel Command. Known as the condition-based maintenance technique, or CBM+, the program gives maintainers the ability to see when a part may fail and to schedule a fix before it does.

The B-1 bore the brunt of repetitive deployment cycles over the last decade, most notably to the Middle East, leaving the fleet in poor shape. Over the past year, the airframe has undergone frequent inspections and time compliance technical orders, or TCTOs, which often mandate modifications, comprehensive equipment inspections or installation of new equipment.

Gen. Tim Ray, the Air Force Global Strike commander, said last month that the fleet's readiness is improving, and its recovery and maintenance are well ahead of schedule, thanks to concentrated resources and maintenance.

"On any given day, I probably can fly well over 20 of the B-1s," Ray said, referencing the fleet's mission-capable rate, or the ability to fly at a moment's notice to conduct operations.

By comparison, only about seven of the bombers were ready to deploy in August 2019.

— Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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