NASA to scrap 16-foot wind tunnel
Employees bid farewell to the historic landmark that has tested every American fighter jet for the past 50 years.
BY DAVE SCHLECK
Published September 25, 2004
HAMPTON -- By this time next week, a 63-year-old landmark at NASA Langley Research Center will be consigned to history books.
The 16-Foot Transonic Wind Tunnel is shutting down Thursday after a lifetime of testing everything from the Apollo moon mission spacecraft to the space shuttle, and just about every fighter jet from the Convair B-58 Hustler to the stealth F-117 Nighthawk.
The news media got their last look at the tunnel Friday. Next week, the final days will be celebrated with cake and tours of the research facility. Spare pieces of the tunnel's 12-foot high turbine blades have already gone out to employees, mementos of a facility that NASA headquarters says duplicates work that can be done elsewhere.
Not everyone thinks NASA is making the right decision by shutting down the 16-Foot, a workhorse that is never short on customers who praise the facility's low cost and reliability. Milton Lane, a test engineer who came out of retirement to work at the 16-Foot, said he doesn't understand why NASA is shutting it down.
"I think they're shooting themselves in the foot," said Lane, who worked for NASA for 35 years before returning to work for contractor Jacobs Sverdrup. "The facility is old, but it still has a lot of usage."
The Department of Defense and NASA recently took a hard look at the four government-owned transonic tunnels in the United States and decided to shut down the 16-Foot. Other tunnels, such as the National Transonic Facility at Langley, can do the same work with better test conditions, NASA says.
Transonic tunnels test the design of aircraft and spacecraft by blowing wind over a miniature model and collecting data on how the air moves over the vehicle. The wind speed is called transonic because it is faster than the speed of sound, which is 741 mph at sea level.
Overall demand for wind tunnels is down, said Blair Gloss, facility group director for wind tunnels at NASA headquarters.
"After the Cold War, the number of aircraft systems being developed has gone down," he said.
But companies like Boeing have consistently used the 16-Foot tunnel partly because of its relatively inexpensive cost, said Todd Magee, a Boeing engineer helping conduct the facility's final experiment.
"It's sad to see it go," Magee said. "We could have always benefited from more test time here." Boeing and the Air Force are testing a cutting-edge aircraft engine called a scramjet, which burns oxygen scooped from the air instead of the traditional turbine compression system used by most jets.
The 16-Foot is on a list of six Langley facilities tentatively planned for demolition. A tentative demolition date for the 16-Foot has been set for 2007 or 2008.
Catherine Turner remembers working at the tunnel's computing section in the early 1940s, when the country's pursuit of aeronautics was challenged by the threat of foreign enemies like Japan and Germany.
"I was there for Pearl Harbor Day," said Turner, a 92-year-old who is now retired in Newport News. "Everyone was stressed trying to build the best airplanes because we knew we were going to get more involved in the war."
It was an age of gas rations and festive dances at the Hotel Chamberlin in Hampton. Turner worked at Langley for $1,400 a year, which was much better pay than her former job as a teacher. She met her future husband at the 16-Foot. He was assistant head of the tunnel.
She oversaw 17 women "computers" who used slide-rules to crunch aerodynamic data that the wind tunnel produced. (Back then, computers were people, not machines.) She only worked at the tunnel for a few years, but she said it will always remind her of her late husband, who died in 1996.
"It meant a lot to me," she said.
It also meant a lot to Lane, who can't imagine going to work anywhere else. A few of the tunnel's 12 employees said Friday that they weren't sure exactly where they would work after the tunnel shuts down, although NASA assures that everyone will get work somewhere.
Lane chooses another path.
"I sort of feel like a part of this tunnel," he said. "I'm going to retire with it."
Could get some decent airflow through my pc case with that bad boy....
... If you ever get the opportunity to participate in wind tunnel tests; do it.
... Amazing machines. Worked on a couple projects at NASA Ames Research Center in California.
... The 40 X 80 tunnel is an awesome test bed. I'll look some of my pix later. Here's on from the AMES website.
the AMES wind tunnel is amazing. I have taken a tour of it. I stood in awe. WHat an amazing piece of engineering.
... It is that indeed
... IIRC, to utilize the NASA Ames facility you must purchase a nearly $2 million liability insurance policy. Every aspect of "preflight" is as stringent as FAA or military hardware. The reason is because if your project comes apart "in flight", the damage and down-time to the wooden fan blades would cost that much to recover.
... Few folks know it, but there is an icing chamber / wind-tunnel in downtown Manhattan, NY. I spent most of last summer there.