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Into the sandstorm

A mock-up of a missile is battered by silicate dust in the test chamber of Desert Wind, a machine designed by York-based Air Dynamics Industrial Systems Corp. to replicate sandstorms for testing mechanical and electrical systems in harsh environments. Photo/Jim R. Ryan

The silicate dust swirls through the air, coating the missile with a white film as the winds whip past its steel warhead and casing.

In any of the world’s harshest natural and war-torn environments, the enemy would never see the missile’s yellow U.S. Army logo as it screamed through the sandstorm toward them, spelling certain doom.

But inside the brick walls of 180 Roosevelt Ave. in York, an industrial space with massive overhead cranes 50 feet off the floor, the dust and sandstorms can coat the missile and observers rest easy; the nose cone contains no explosive device.

The fake missile is mounted inside the test chamber of Desert Wind, an invention of Dan and Aaron Lehman. The father and son own Air Dynamics Industrial Systems Corp., a company specializing in vacuum and pneumatic devices for the movement of fine particulate matter such as chemicals, sand or beads from one part of a factory to another.

Over the past five years, the company has researched, built, modified, disassembled and rebuilt Desert Wind, a hulking combination of steel, electronics, tubes and wires designed to test almost any mechanical or electrical device against replicated sand and dust storms.

On Jan. 25, the Lehmans demonstrated the machine for a group of local business leaders before they ship the latest incarnation to Redstone Arsenal, an Alabama base that’s home to the Army’s rocket and missile programs.

Although testing devices against sand is gritty work, Desert Wind’s 27 tons have clean symmetry and fluidity to its design.

“That’s important, to make it look good,” said Dan Lehman, Air Dynamics president and general manager. “It has to be an art designing these machines.”

In the past, Air Dynamics assembled and disassembled smaller machines by hand in its 300 N. Queen St. facility. But the latest machine is nearly three times the size of previous ones, Lehman said. Enter the York County Economic Alliance that owns the Roosevelt Avenue space.

“They had a fairly unique need for the big, high-ceiling bay area (at Roosevelt Avenue),” said Darrell Auterson, the alliance’s president and CEO.

Air Dynamics filled an industrial space that had gone years without a tenant, but Air Dynamics could prove to be even more important in building an advanced technology community, he said.

“The expertise they have is uncommon and we’re hoping they’ll be a big asset to the development of business in this area,” Auterson said.

Redstone Arsenal is the second base to buy a Desert Wind machine in two years and the third customer in the same time. The Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Ind., bought one in 2010. Last year, Canada’s Aerospace Manufacturing Technology Center, a Montreal-based testing and certification center of Canada’s National Research Council, also bought a system.

Air Dynamics is building a niche in the military hardware market in line with Central Pennsylvania traditions, said Michael Smeltzer, executive director of the Manufacturers’ Association of South Central Pennsylvania.

That tradition dates to the American Revolution when musket and cannon ammunition was manufactured at the ironworks in what is now Pine Grove Furnace State Park in Cumberland County. Midstate manufacturers have made equipment for nearly every conflict since and still do, including L3 Fuzing & Ordnance in Lancaster County and BAE Systems in York County.

Since its founding in 1991, Air Dynamics has served the commercial manufacturing sector with its vacuum and blown-air systems. Building on its history and newfound expertise in testing equipment could launch the company to new heights, Smeltzer said.

“Their challenge is the unpredictable nature of capital equipment acquisition,” he said. “The military isn’t going to buy one of those machines every month or even every year.”

The military has dozens of testing facilities where it inspects the functionality of equipment to ensure a new truck, missile or radio system holds up, Lehman said. That protects the lives of military personnel and saves money, he said. Air Dynamics is just scratching the market’s surface, he said.

There’s also need in the private sectors around the world for similar testing, evident from inquiries as far away as Australia and Japan, he said.

“There are about 90 different deserts worldwide, and deserts are expanding,” Lehman said. “Then you have commercial items, whether that’s planes or trucks, that have to operate in these arid environments. Then you think about electronics that have to operate in those environments. There’s a need for this new standard.”

Jim T. Ryan

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