Creating a Perfect Storm

Creating a Perfect StormThrough Rain, Sleet and Snow, Eglin’s McKinley Climatic Laboratory has been Weathering 60 Years of Safety Experimentation

By Scott Jackson 

Mother Nature occasionally has been a bad houseguest of the Emerald Coast, leaving her indelible mark with hurricanes and storms over the years. But while we typically enjoy temperate and inviting weather, a large hangar at Eglin Air Force Base has been artificially creating the most horrific weather extremes known to man on a regular basis for 60 years.

In so doing, the McKinley Climatic Laboratory, a registered national landmark, has become a centerpiece of technical research in the region and has drawn a pool of scientific and engineering talent to the Emerald Coast.

Climatic testing of military aircraft, systems and subsystems to ensure that they will perform in some of the most extreme conditions throughout the world, ranging from Arctic cold to desert heat, has been the primary mission of the laboratory.

“After World War II began, the Army Air Force found itself fighting in every type of climatic environment: the hot, dry deserts of North Africa, the hot and very humid tropics of the Southwest Pacific, and the subzero cold of the western Aleutian Islands,” said Bob Kane, Eglin Air Force Base’s assistant Air Armament Center historian. “It became imperative to see how its aircraft, armament systems and people performed in these widely diverse types of climates.”

While early attempts to establish climatic testing were established in Alaska, Lt. Col. Ashley C. McKinley convinced the Army Air Force that climatic testing under controlled conditions could provide better results and more economically than in Alaska, according to Kane.

“He further suggested that the AAF construct a hangar of sufficient size to house an aircraft the size of the B-29 and provide several separate cold rooms, armament test chambers, shops and offices,” Kane said.

Although the Army Air Force approved the project and began construction in March 1944, the hanger was not completed until the spring of 1947 because of wartime material shortages, technological challenges and postwar strikes.

“The first tests under simulated Arctic conditions were conducted in May 1947 using a Fairchild Packet, a Boeing B-29, a Lockheed P-80, a North American P-51, a Lockheed P-38 and a Sikorsky R5D helicopter,” Kane said. “The facility reached temperatures as low as negative 70 degrees Fahrenheit.”

At the other temperature extreme, the lab can reach heats of 165 degrees. It also can create rain, sleet, wind, snow, fog, dust and sand conditions.

Over its 60 years, the McKinley Climatic Laboratory has expanded in size and scope, especially through a $75-million expansion in the mid-1990s. The cavernous facility now spans approximately 3.3 million cubic feet, is four stories tall and is large enough to hold a 747 jumbo jet.

The lab has tested numerous military and non-military systems, including recent tests of the F-22 Raptor fighter, cruise missiles, Army Humvees and even tents. Since the Air Force markets the lab for non-commercial use, clients such as Hawker Beechcraft Corporation, Goodyear Tire & Rubber and Ford have paid to use the facility, which costs from $8,000 to $20,000 per day to run, depending upon the type of test.

The facility’s steel girder and concrete construction was designed for endurance and withstood 60 years of temperature extremes, yet often yields eerily to the stress.

“You’ll hear all sorts of noises from the walls,” said Kirk Velasco, civilian team leader of the laboratory who spends his work day in the lab’s control room.

But Velasco added that while most Floridians dress for coastal temperatures, he has to dress for the extremes.

Like most jobs, you get use to it. Wearing Arctic clothing to perform your duty and working in temperatures as low as negative 65 degrees becomes routine. On extremely hot summer days, it’s actually nice to be able to go into a cold chamber,” he said.

In addition to temperature and climatic extremes, the lab also has endured budgetary stresses over the years as various initiatives to close it have come and gone. Yet despite the challenges, it has continued to play a critical role in ensuring that military hardware can be effective under any climatic condition in the world.