McKinley Climatic Laboratory home to world’s largest climatic chamber

  • Published
  • By Kirk Velasco
  • AEDC/McKinley Climatic Laboratory

The McKinley Climatic Laboratory has been conducting climatic testing for the Department of Defense for more than 73 years.  It predates the Air Force and was a part of the Army Air Corps when it first opened. However, we only became part of AEDC less than four years ago. So for those who are not familiar with this facility and its amazing capabilities, let me give you a synopsis of what we do.

Testing weapons systems under extreme environmental conditions is a vital necessity for improving system reliability. The capabilities of the MCL help engineers ensure maximum reliability and operational capability of our ever-more-complex weapon and weapon support systems as our global operational theaters continue to impose harsh environments.

For all agencies of the DOD, environmental testing at the MCL is an essential step in establishing a proven military capability to meet our global commitments specifically stated in the National Defense Strategy. The results obtained from the vast array of aircraft and equipment tested at the MCL have been a major factor in maintaining the position of the United States as the world's leading military power.

The MCL is the only facility in the world that can hold and test a full-scale operational aircraft in climatic extremes.  This facility can produce, on any given day, any extreme weather environment within which to conduct a desired test.  Ultimately, testing at the MCL has proven to cost significantly less than testing in the real world and provide far superior test results.

The MCL, although best known for its Main Chamber, actually has five climatic testing chambers.  The Main Chamber is the largest climatic chamber in the world.  It is able to hold any aircraft in the DOD inventory.  Climatic conditions that can be created in this chamber include low temperature conditions down to -65 degrees Fahrenheit, high temperature conditions up to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, solar radiation (simulated sun), high and low humidity, wind, rain, sand, dust, snow, freezing rain, ground and inflight icing, and a high corrosive salt fog environment.

The other four chambers, although smaller, have the ability to create similar climatic conditions.  In addition to the climatic conditions, the MCL has the ability to provide real time conditioned air to operate air breathing engines on aircraft, ground equipment or any other type of engine that requires air to operate.  This system, called the Air Make-Up system, allows the test personnel to operate the engines at all power settings in all climatic conditions.  Including full afterburner, if that particular aircraft has the capability.       

These amazing capabilities coupled with the size of the chambers makes this facility one-of-a-kind in the world.  So this facility, in addition to being used by the Air Force, is heavily used by the Army, Navy, Marines, Missile Defense Agency and many other government agencies.  It is a true DOD testing facility.  Also, because of its unique abilities, it is used by many foreign militaries and many commercial companies.  Although testing for commercial companies is not our primary focus, the fact that numerous commercial companies from all over the world want to test their products in this facility proves the tremendous value of the MCL’s capabilities.

However, none of this would mean anything without the extremely talented personnel that design the test setup and create the climatic conditions, and the people that operate and maintain the facility.  It is the people that are the lifeblood of the facility.  Without them the facility would be nothing but brick and mortar.  Investing in the proper schooling, training and then on-the-job experience is extremely important in being able to keep this facility supporting the needs of the NDS. 

The second part of this is to continually improve and sustain this large complex facility.  As a 73-year-old facility it needs a lot of tender, loving care.  Not just to keep the facility operational, but to prepare it to meet the requirements of the advanced new weapon systems being developed for the future.  With today’s tight budgets, it is imperative that we continue to fund the upgrades necessary to keep this facility fully operational. 

In summary, meeting the needs of the NDS is a complicated process.  However this facility, over the past 73 years, has proven its worth in accomplishing that mission time and time again.  No other facility in the world can meet the specific needs of these future weapon systems that the MCL can provide.  It is imperative that we continue to provide superior mission excellence, invest in our people, and continue to improve and sustain the complex to keep this facility “second to none.”