For the love of planes

3:15:12 PM CDT - Friday, February 14, 2003

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

2_13_2003_tomblin.jpg (5,802 bytes)

John Tomblin, a fast-rising researcher who's
loved aerospace since he was a child, will
take over as interim executive director of
the National Institute for Aviation Research
on Monday, Feb. 17. University officials
expect Tomblin to eventually become
NIAR's permanent director.

When John Tomblin came to WSU in 1994, fresh out of graduate school at West Virginia University, he came "for the love of the aerospace industry.

"Wichita is the place to be," Tomblin says. "It's the Air Capital of the World, and NIAR (WSU's National Institute for Aviation Research) was one of the reasons I chose to come. The institute has laboratory resources that contend with the best universities in the world."

Less than a decade later, Tomblin has been tapped to lead NIAR and to work closely with industry officials from the Big Four companies that inspired Wichita's moniker.

Tomblin will become NIAR's interim executive director Feb. 17.  He's been the institute's director of research and development for the past year and a half, during which he has had technical oversight and marketing of NIAR's 17 research laboratories. Since 1995, he's been coordinator of two of those labs the structures lab, and the composites and advanced materials lab.

University officials expect to give Tomblin the job permanently within a year or so, according to Gerald "Skip" Loper, WSU's associate vice president for research who's led NIAR on an interim basis since Ramesh Agarwal resigned in 2001.  A national search had yielded candidates with solid scientific and research experience, but none had administrative experience.

When the committee, made up of university and industry officials, realized Tomblin had similar credentials, they decided to give someone already familiar with NIAR operations an opportunity to gain administrative experience through the interim appointment.

"In the end, it's the best thing we can do for NIAR," says Loper, who was on the committee. "We want him to have a chance to ease into the job and keep his research going and become comfortable with the job."

"I'm confident he'll show he's more than worthy of being named executive director after this interim period," says Randy Nelson, vice president of engineering and new product development with Cessna. Nelson and his counterparts at Boeing, Raytheon and Bombardier Learjet are members of NIAR's industry advisory board.

"In my opinion," says Nelson, "he's technically very competent and he understands how to work with the federal agencies NIAR needs to work with to provide funding. He's done an excellent job of interfacing with industry and to do work that industry can use. His research has been of high value to industry."

Loper agrees that Tomblin's "tremendous connections" with aviation officials and federal agencies bode well for NIAR. He noted Tomblin has brought in $5 million in new research projects over the past five years.

And Tomblin plans to continue bringing in more funding. He's currently working on a federal grant to study aging composite issues in aircraft, which would be a new field of study in aviation research. The research would build on his work in NASA's eight-year Advanced General Aviation Transport Experiment program.

As part of the AGATE program, Tomblin generated a database on composite materials' characteristics. Aircraft companies had sent composite panels to Tomblin to test under various environmental conditions. The work has helped aviation manufacturers reduce the time it takes to develop and certify planes made with the materials.

Continuing his research will "enhance" his role as executive director, says Tomblin. "I'll be more in tune with actual technical content being conducted in the laboratories, exploring new research areas and actively pursuing additional funding."

Tomblin realizes the magnitude of being in charge of NIAR. "I was thrilled that the administration asked me to do this, especially in this crucial time."

It is an important time for NIAR, which opened in 1989. The institute has brought in millions of dollars in research in recent years. In fiscal year 2002, NIAR researchers brought in $11.25 million. A new engineering building, funded by the Kansas Legislature, will include space for NIAR, and millions in federal funds are helping upgrade labs.

There are plans to open another new research lab this spring. A lab opened in October to study aging commuter aircraft. The lab may also study aging B-52 bombers, first built in the 1950s, Tomblin says.

Interacting with politicians will be a "big part" of his job, he says. As NIAR continues to get federal and state funds he'll need to assure "those appropriations are spent wisely and that the state and federal governments are getting their money's worth."

When he's not making a case for funds, he'll champion the aviation field. Later this month, he will represent Wichita's aviation industry and NIAR in hearings held by the Senate's subcommittee on science, technology and space, chaired by Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback.

For Tomblin, getting to work in the aviation field is a thrill. He's been interested in aerospace since he was a child.

"I grew up during the Apollo space program and all that stuff that was going on interested me," he said in a recent interview.

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