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Hope Engineering Professor Seeks to
Help Aircraft Survive Explosions

Posted April 22, 2002

HOLLAND -- As society works to make commercial flying safer in the post-Sept. 11 world, a Hope College professor's research prompted by an earlier tragedy has taken on added relevance.

Dr. Roger Veldman, assistant professor of engineering, is studying how to help airplanes better withstand internal explosions. His work has recently received support through a two-year grant from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Aviation Research Grants Program, as part of the FAA's support of research into methods to counteract terrorist activities.

He has investigated the topic since beginning his doctoral research in the mid-1990s, but his interest goes back to the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

"My real interest in this research began with the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 of Lockerbie, Scotland, on December 21, 1988," Veldman said. "At the time I was a senior at Hope College and I was particularly moved by the loss of so many lives, including 35 Syracuse University students as they returned to the U.S. just prior to Christmas, after spending a semester studying overseas."

"Several years later, when searching for a suitable topic for a doctoral dissertation, my advisor at Western Michigan University, Dr. Judah Ari-Gur, suggested research aimed at minimizing commercial aircraft damage under internal blast loading," he said. "I was immediately sold on the idea, and have spent the past several years conducting research in this area."

Veldman is examining how the aluminum skin of a commercial aircraft responds to an explosive force from within the aircraft, particularly considering the effects of cabin pressurization for high-altitude flights. Over the course of the two-year project, he and the Hope engineering students working with him will run computer simulations and conduct field tests on small sections of the material, to test the difference made when pressurization changes.

In addition to building understanding of how the materials respond, he is also hoping to help refine the research approach to enhance its usefulness in making aircraft more resilient. Most work thus far, he noted, has involved testing full-size aircraft--a process which has the virtue of being realistic, but is also expensive, time- consuming to prepare, and requires a new aircraft for each trial.

"The idea of this project is to go to the opposite end of the spectrum," Veldman said. "Which is to use a simplified structure that allows many tests to be run in a very quick manner to evaluate the effects of key parameters."

The disadvantage in computer modeling and smaller testing, he said, is that the simulations might not reflect reality. If through his analysis he finds that the modeling and testing match the results from full-scale trials done before, he might help give researchers a tool that will allow them to do more work less expensively. While a single full-scale test might cost several million dollars, for example, he anticipates being able to conduct 40 to 50 tests through the $101,884 he has received from the FAA.

Veldman's hope is that what he learns, about both the materials and his methodology, will help other researchers as they consider the topic as well.

"This project won't be proposing a solution," he said. "It's more seeking an understanding of the most critical factors that are involved in the process for use in developing effective counter-measures."

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