NIAR and NCMS pioneer revolutionary KC-135 sustainment program

Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) and the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) announce supporting partnerships with the U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) and the U.S. Air Force (USAF) Air Mobility Command (AMC) to establish a KC-135 Stratotanker innovation testbed in Wichita.

Earlier this month, a retired KC-135 air refueling aircraft was flown to McConnell Air Force Base and delivered to NIAR to establish the Sustainment Technologies, Research and Automation for Transformative Operations Testbed (STRATO-T).

STRATO-T will be located at Air Capital Flight Line in a stretch of property near McConnell Air Force Base, which includes shared runway access. Beginning in July, STRATO-T will be available for government, industry and academia to study, develop and test innovations for reducing legacy aircraft operations costs. STRATO-T will maintain in flight-representative configuration to facilitate ground (non-flying) evaluations and studies of innovative sustainment, energy efficiency, and aircraft automation concepts. Leveraging NIAR’s digital engineering experience throughout these and other studies, STRATO-T will also generate vital KC-135 digital models to improve the long-term supportability of this critical air refueling asset.

STRATO-T leverages the synergistic missions of NIAR, NCMS, AMC and USTRANSCOM. A Cooperative Research and Development Agreement between USTRANSCOM and NIAR utilizes the KC-135 and NIAR’s expertise in legacy aircraft research to create a unique facility where innovators can test new aviation innovations. A Partnership Intermediary Agreement between USTRANSCOM and NCMS (and similar agreement between NCMS and NIAR) leverages NCMS’s expertise in finding and partnering with technology innovators across the country.

“We applaud the joint efforts of NCMS, USTRANSCOM and AMC for this innovative approach to sustainment for the KC-135 fleet,” said John Tomblin, WSU senior vice president for Industry and Defense Programs and NIAR executive director. “The opportunity for our staff and students to support these efforts with a functional KC-135 is incomparable. We’re confident this program will demonstrate how leading technology can be used to sustain legacy aircraft and pave the way for additional aircraft sustainment programs.”

Acting as USTRANSCOM’s and AMC’s intermediary, NCMS will lead the effort to identify technologies and solution providers that have the potential to significantly improve the sustainment posture of the KC-135 and other aviation assets across the USAF. The development of autonomy technology is a priority for the STRATO-T program. Government, industry and academic partners will be able to use the aircraft to explore innovation in hardware, software, operations and maintenance of large military aircraft – with high potential for military/civilian dual technology use.

“STRATO-T will facilitate projects from government, industry and academic partners that apply and advance technologies such as autonomy, digital engineering, predictive data analysis, and advanced manufacturing,” said Lisa Strama, President and CEO of NCMS. “Projects that harness these technologies have the potential to extend aircraft lifespans. NCMS is honored to collaborate with USTRANSCOM, AMC, and NIAR to establish and develop STRATO-T.”

The selected KC-135 aircraft is approximately 60 years old and otherwise destined for long-term desert storage. It possesses inherent physical/structural and electronic characteristics gained from decades of military service, providing otherwise unobtainable impacts of generations of maintenance, upgrade, environmental exposure, and global operational use. The aircraft's service life confers artifacts that are highly representative of the condition and performance of other legacy aircraft, resulting in a uniquely realistic environment for test and demonstration of new technologies.

Expected outcomes include successful application of innovative technology, systems integration requirements, and their suitability and value in use. Researchers and innovators will develop and transfer technical information related to extending the useful lifespan of legacy aircraft, modernizing aircraft systems, and exploring innovations in operations and maintenance.

STRATO-T will advance technology readiness levels including aircraft automation, advanced manufacturing, maintenance and repair techniques, and make possible information collection for human system development, predictive maintenance, aircraft threat mitigation, and other uses. 

About Wichita State University

Wichita State University is Kansas' only urban public research university, enrolling almost 22,000 students between its main campus and WSU Tech, including students from every state in the U.S. and more than 100 countries. Wichita State and WSU Tech are recognized for being student centered and innovation driven.

Located in the largest city in the state with one of the highest concentrations in the United States of jobs involving science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), Wichita State University provides uniquely distinctive and innovative pathways of applied learning, applied research and career opportunities for all of our students.

The Innovation Campus, which is a physical extension of the Wichita State University main campus, is one of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing research/innovation parks, encompassing over 120 acres and is home to a number of global companies and organizations.

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About the National Institute for Aviation Research

Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research provides research, design, testing, certification and training to aviation, defense, and manufacturing industries.  NIAR has a $217 million annual budget, 1,200 employees, two million square feet across Wichita and a satellite office in Huntsville, AL.  Areas of expertise include Additive/Advanced Manufacturing; Advanced Coatings; Aerodynamics; Ballistics/Crash Dynamics; Composites/Advanced Materials; Digital Twin; Environmental/EME; eXtended Reality; Flight Simulation; Full-Scale Structural Test; NDT; Sustainment; Reverse Engineering; Robotics/Automation and Virtual Engineering.

About NCMS  

NCMS is a cross-industry technology development consortium dedicated to improving the competitiveness and strength of the U.S. industrial base for 36 years.  NCMS leverages a network of industry, government, and university partners to develop, demonstrate, and transition innovative technologies efficiently, with less risk and lower cost.  NCMS enables world-class companies to work effectively with other members on new opportunities—matching highly capable companies with the providers and end users who need their innovations and technology solutions.  The NCMS network benefits from an accelerated progression of idea creation through execution. Learn more at, at NCMS's LinkedIn, and @ncmsmfg.  

About U.S. Transportation Command

USTRANSCOM exists as a warfighting combatant command to project and sustain military power at a time and place of the nation’s choosing.  Powered by dedicated men and women, USTRANSCOM underwrites the lethality of the Joint Force, advances American interests around the globe, and provides our nation's leaders with strategic flexibility to select from multiple options, while creating multiple dilemmas for our adversaries.

About Air Mobility Command  

Air Mobility Command serves as U.S. Transportation Command’s air component, executing the air mobility mission in support of the joint force, allies, and partners with a fleet of nearly 1,100 aircraft. The command encompasses Eighteenth Air Force, the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center, the 618th Air Operations Center, 17 wings and two groups, which provide rapid global mobility from more than 100 locations worldwide.  Nearly 107,000 active-duty, Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve Airmen, and civilians comprise the air mobility Total Force, providing command and control of inter-theater and intra-theater airlift, air refueling, aeromedical evacuation, global air mobility support, and presidential and senior leader air transport in support of national interests.  For more information, visit