Giant $34.4 million AF centrifuge delayed

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE — The startup date of a new Air Force centrifuge, among the largest in the world, has been delayed up to a year forcing the service to continue to pay $1 million annually to lease an old centrifuge it once owned in Texas.

The delay means the giant $34.4 million centrifuge is now scheduled to start operations by September 2013, said Thomas S. Wells, director of the 711th Human Performance Wing, which will own the spinning machine at Wright-Patterson.

“It’s a one-of-a-kind and it’s going to be the best in the world, so it’s not like you take these off the shelf,” Wells said in an interview with the Dayton Daily News.

Environmental Tectonics Corp. of Southampton, Pa., is the chief contractor. The Dayton Daily News made repeated attempts to speak to officials about the delay.

Wright-Patterson officials initially said “manufacturing issues” caused the schedule setback.

In one instance, a shipping container containing a 225,000-pound motor, built by ABB Oy in Helsinki, Finland, was damaged and the bearings were replaced as a precaution, officials said.

“It’s not easy when you move something that far that large,” said Wright-Patterson spokesman Daryl Mayer. “That means you have to be very careful when you ship something.”

Workers have installed the giant motor in the ground and expect a pedestal and a 31-foot-long arm to be assembled this year, Wells said.

The centrifuge will test the limits of human and equipment performance under multiple forces of gravity, or “G-forces.” The machine will have three pods with F-22, F-16 and research cockpits, Wells said. The pods are at the end of a 31-foot long arm that spins humans at up to 10 times the force of gravity and equipment at up to 20 times.

IMPEX Inc., of Tulsa, Okla., a contractor that failed to win the fixed-price contract to build the centrifuge, objected to the contract award in September 2009. The Goverment Accountability Office, a congressional investigative arm, dismissed the complaint within weeks because IMPEX failed to respond to a GAO report addressing the company’s allegations.

The protest “was another reason for the delay in the centrifuge selection,” Mayer said.

While the Air Force waits for completion, it will continue to lease one at Brooks City-Base, Texas. Under the base realignment and closure law of 1995, the Air Force gave the base to the city of San Antonio, Texas. The Air Force then leased the right to use the centrifuge from a contractor, Mayer said.

The Air Force planned to move that centrifuge to Wright-Patterson. Officials discovered the idea wouldn’t work because removing and relocating the equipment would have destroyed the old centrifuge, Mayer said.

Air Force officials decided to purchase a new machine in 2009.

To comply with the BRAC law of 2005, the military shut down decades-old centrifuges at Wright-Patterson and Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, Wells said.

The service has a backup plan, if needed, to lease time on a centrifuge at Lemoore Naval Air Station in California, Wells said.

To comply with BRAC construction deadlines, workers constructed the 3-story building that will house the new centrifuge at Wright-Patterson before the Air Force knew what machine it could choose, said Mayer.

Butt Construction, with partner Archer Western Contractors Ltd. of Chicago, had a $194.5 million contract to build the 711th Human Performance Wing complex, including the School of Aerospace Medicine and the centrifuge building. Construction on the 680,000-square-foot project finished three months early.

Bill Butt, president of Dayton-based Butt Construction Co., said the Air Force asked his firm to dig the foundation for the centrifuge building deeper than originally planned. The change added about $500,000 to the cost of the project to dig the foundation to about six feet deep, he said.

“They hadn’t really finalized the contract, the purchase and the construction of the centrifuge when we were designing the building,” he said. “... We had to go deeper in the ground while we were still under construction.

“We were trying to coordinate as the centrifuge was being designed,” he added. “It was sort of a work in progress.”

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