Weapons Survivability Lab Marks 50 Years

An aerial view of the nine-engine Super HVAS at the WSL. (U.S. Navy photo by WSL Photo Team)

For 50 years, the Weapons Survivability Laboratory (WSL) at China Lake, California, has played a crucial role in making naval aircraft safer and more survivable in a crash.

Since 1970, the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division’s (NAWCWD) WSL has discovered and resolved vulnerabilities in aircraft before sending naval aviators into enemy territory. Could a rocket-propelled grenade fired at a flying jet’s fuel tank bring the plane down? WSL conducts tests, analyzes what happened and provides data so aircraft designers can do their best to ensure the answer to that question, and many more, is “no.”

A T-33B aircraft is set up for a test at the WSL’s original two-engine High Velocity Airflow System (HIVAS) circa 1975. (U.S. Navy photo)

“I’m always impressed with the passion and dedication of the people working in the survivability discipline,” said Chuck Frankenberger, WSL lead. “That passion provided a great foundation, and it’s alive and well in the workforce today. We continue to expand that foundation by keeping up with or ahead of new aircraft and threat technologies, providing the most survivable aircraft to our warfighters.”

Today, WSL has five primary test sites that can accommodate anything from small, unmanned air vehicles to jumbo-sized transports.

An A-4 Skyhawk undergoes fuel system evaluations at the Weapons Survivability Laboratory (WSL). (U.S. Navy photo)

Naval Air Systems Command initiated the Aircraft Survivability Program in 1969 after survivability issues plagued aircraft from World War I through the Vietnam War. In particular, more than 5,000 aircraft were lost to small arms in Southeast Asia, and there were more than 30,000 incidents of combat damage.

That same year, what was then the Naval Weapons Center (NWC) was chosen as the lead laboratory to conduct research and development work to understand vulnerability and survivability on Navy combat aircraft, such as the A-4 Skyhawk, F-4 Phantom, F-14 Tomcat and A-7 Corsair.

In 1970, NWC started the Vulnerability/Survivability Gun Range and completed its first live-fire test site. The A-4 Skyhawk was the first aircraft tested, marking the beginning of a 50-year tradition of evaluating the lethality of foreign threats against U.S. aircraft and finding potential vulnerabilities.

But it soon became obvious there were limits to testing capabilities, mainly, that planes in flight move through the air at hundreds of miles per hour, while planes on the ground are in still air. Enter the High Velocity Airflow System (HIVAS).

The facility’s first HIVAS was completed in 1975 to provide realistic conditions for live-fire testing. The system simulates in-flight airflow conditions over aircraft surfaces or through internal compartments or engine inlets.

Over the ensuing years, the Aircraft Survivability Range expanded its focus, combining live-fire testing and analysis for a model-test-model approach to identify and test vulnerabilities, then make recommendations on how to fix them. In 1980, the name changed to the Weapons Survivability Laboratory.

Survivability testing, of which WSL is at the forefront, is so vital that the Department of Defense 5000 series of directives in 1991 mandated survivability as a critical system characteristic when acquiring weapons systems. Also, federal law requires realistic survivability testing be done before production ramps up.

An F-14 MANPADS (man-portable air defense system) is tested in static condition, tower mounted at the WSL. (U.S. Navy photo)

As the times change, so does WSL. The first HIVAS used two turbofan engines; today, WSL has a four-engine HIVAS and a nine-engine Super HIVAS, which allows air to move at up to Mach 0.82. In addition to blowing air over wings, the systems enable testing of aerodynamics, flares and rocket motors, stores ejection and separations, seat ejections and parachute deployment, among others.

By performing these tests on the ground with remote controls and full instrumentation, WSL conducts evaluations that would be difficult or impossible to complete safely and cost effectively. As demonstrated over the last 50 years, WSL will continue to adapt to ever-changing conditions to protect America’s forces from threats old and new.

Written by Aaron Crutchfield with Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division Public Affairs.