NCMS part of project to keep KC-135 refueling aircraft flying longer

ANN ARBOR—The Ann Arbor-based National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, along with Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research, has announced partnerships with the U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command and the U.S. Transportation Command 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, or STRATO-T.

STRATO-T will be located at Air Capital Flight Line on 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 operation costs. STRATO-T will maintain in flight-representative configuration to facilitate ground (non-flying) evaluations and studies of sustainment, energy efficiency, and aircraft automation concepts. Leveraging NIAR’s digital engineering experience throughout these and other studies, STRATO-T will also generate KC-135 digital models to improve the long-term supportability of this air refueling asset.

STRATO-T leverages the missions of NIAR, NCMS, AMC, and USTRANSCOM. A Cooperative Research and Development Agreement between USTRANSCOM and NIAR uses the KC-135 and NIAR’s expertise in legacy aircraft research to create a research center where aviation innovations can be tested. A Partnership Intermediary Agreement between USTRANSCOM and NCMS, and a similar agreement between NCMS and NIAR, will use NCMS’s expertise in finding and partnering with technology innovators across the country.

Acting as USTRANSCOM’s and AMC’s intermediary, NCMS will lead the effort to identify technologies that have the potential to improve the service life 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 and 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.

NCMS is a cross-industry technology development consortium dedicated to improving the competitiveness and strength of the U.S. industrial base. Founded 36 years ago, 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.

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, Ala. Areas of expertise include additive and advanced manufacturing, advanced coatings, aerodynamics, ballistics and crash dynamics, composites and advanced materials, digital twin, environmental, extended reality, flight simulation, full-scale structural testing, ,non-destructive testing, sustainment, reverse engineering, robotics, automation, and virtual engineering. More at

USTRANSCOM is a warfighting combatant command to project and sustain military power at a time and place of the nation’s choosing. 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.

Air Mobility Command serves as the 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


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