Why You Need to Address the Safety Risks of Old Aerospace Test Buildings

November 9, 2023 - Author: Matt Guise - Project Manager

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Why you need to address the safety risks of old aerospace test buildings

Outdated Aerospace Test Buildings Pose Significant Safety Risks

Many of the aerospace test buildings used today were built over 50 years ago. These aging structures, once robust and modern, are now showing their wear and tear. As a result, they present a new set of safety concerns for today’s aerospace testing.

In today’s ‘do more with less’ business climate, aerospace companies face a significant challenge. They must make their test programs and facilities more flexible, expand their testing capabilities, and achieve faster throughput, all while operating within tight resource constraints. This mandate becomes even more challenging when dealing with aging test facilities that date back to the post-World War II era.

Let’s look at the critical issues associated with recommissioning or retrofitting these old aerospace test buildings.

Facility Safety

Recommissioning or retrofitting aging aerospace test buildings pose significant safety challenges.

Many of these aging test facilities were built as part of a larger assembly factory with central plant utilities distributed across many buildings. Building codes and industry practice held plant engineers to a different standard for integrating safety into the facility design than what’s practiced today.

For example, steam was often generated in large quantities from powerhouse boilers and distributed across the plant. The steam was used for heating requirements but also for some test applications.

Steam is still used on some sites to simulate atmospheric conditions for certain tests. However, modern plant engineers are abandoning this practice because of the inherent aerospace safety risks associated with steam. Instead, they’re designing more efficient, alternative solutions.

Technological advances in instrumentation and control equipment have rendered old methods obsolete, but remnants of this practice can still be found at these aging facilities today. In one facility we toured; we found a significant amount of mercury concealed within the control room walls. While mercury was once common in instrumentation, it is rarely still used today due to the potential health hazard..

Personnel Safety

Ensuring the well-being of personnel in retrofitted or recommissioned aerospace testing facilities is a multifaceted challenge.

Two of the major risks are engine exhaust re-entering the engine and exhaust lingering in occupied areas of the test facility. Accordingly, engineers thoroughly study the engine exhaust and acoustical air flow dynamics at test facilities for their potential effect on the environment, test acoustics, and personnel.

In the past, the building design may have released gases into unoccupied areas during testing, but people were in those areas at other times. We’ve seen gas and fume buildup in a mezzanine or mechanical level of the building that can affect people’s health today. Human factors and aerospace safety need to be considered short term, but risks can also cause long term effects.

It was also common to use Co2  systems to extinguish fires in the test cells and control rooms. Today, we rarely use this method of fire suppression as it carries significant risks to human life. Instead, many aerospace companies design water mist systems as a safer alternative.

Other long-term exposure hazards of the aging buildings include contaminated concrete and antiquated waste systems. Installing improved ventilation and waste systems is essential for any renovation plan to ensure the safety of workers in the building.

Test Equipment Safety

In recent years, the absence of funding for preventative maintenance has forced facility management to take a “break-fix” approach, rather than a “prevent and maintain” approach. The “break-fix” approach is the riskier option as the degrading building can create risks during testing and often leads to unexpected down times for the test operations.

Preventing foreign objects from entering and potentially damaging critical test articles, such as engines, remains a paramount safety concern. Foreign object damages risk increases due to building enclosure deterioration, such as crumbling concrete and structural cracks that affect test environment cleanliness and integrity.

The simple material degradation makes these facilities less capable of withstanding extreme conditions. You can’t conduct safe tests when concrete is falling from the ceiling.

Is Recommissioning too Risky for Your Site?

The modernization and replacement of aging aerospace testing facilities are vital steps in ensuring the safety of aerospace testing.

The World War II-era facilities were once pioneering test environments. Today they raise serious safety concerns. Simply recommissioning these structures exposes testers and testing to significant safety risks that you can only address through a retrofit or renovation project.

Depending on the condition of the facility, new construction may be the safer and more practical path forward. The days of sprawling plants with multipurpose facilities are slowly giving way to more streamlined, purpose-built structures. This evolution is not just a matter of strategic intention, but also driven by aerospace safety considerations.