...While Tech Keeps The Older Birds Flying

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And as 1970s technology is applied to aerial firefighting hardware, the Forest Service, NASA and the University of California, Davis, are collaborating on a state-of-the-art facility to keep the well-worn fleet of air tankers operating as safely as possible. The new Aviation Center for Excellence includes a flight simulator specially designed for firefighting crews and a whole-aircraft X-ray system for spotting structural problems in aircraft. The X-ray system is a former Air Force facility now owned by Aerobotics Inc., which has joined with four other firms to create the Aircraft Health Management center. The most immediate impact on firefighting by the facility is likely to be from the simulator. The sim re-creates real-life cockpit conditions experienced fighting a fire and subjects the crew members to the complexities of maintaining effective communications while guiding a fully loaded aircraft through turbulent air and at extremely low altitude to the correct drop point. (Sounds like it would make a great video game.) "It's all about communications and coordination," said Forest Service spokesman Dennis Hulbert. There's also ongoing research into making metals tougher and more resilient through laser peening, which directs high-energy blasts of laser light at metal. The resulting shockwaves through the surface make it more resistant to corrosion, fatigue and stress. University spokesman Michael Hill said the knowledge gained and processes developed should have wide applications and not just be restricted to firefighting challenges.