Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The End for Langley's Wind Tunnel

Looking like a set from a 1930s Sci-Fi film, even before you notice the two figures standing in front of the aircrews. Crop from the image below. NASA.

It appears that time has run out for Langley's wind tunnel. Formerly operated by NASA, it has been used by Old Dominion University recently, and while there appears to be plenty of work left for it, NASA isn't prepared to keep it in use. As ever costs (and I suspect particularly significant maintenance and repair costs) are cited as the reason for its planned destruction.

The full picture shows the prototype of what later became the Brewster F2B Buffalo. Careful tests cleaned up the airframe to add a claimed 50 mph top speed improvement. Meanwhile in the huge room with the tiny figures the viewer can almost hear the echoes! NASA.

However one of the aspects of this full size and historic wind tunnel is the way it (literally) put aircraft under the spotlight and on stage. There's something of an outsize jeweller's window in the way the aircraft appear and the giant maws of the two tunnels looked like a secret entrance to somewhere quite else - the wooden airscrews and carefully shaped wooden mouths add a mixed-technology touch to modern viewers.

As the diagram here prosaically shows, the air just goes around in a pair of giant square tubes, but it certainly doesn't look like that in the image above.

A Boeing P-26 Peashooter under testing, 1930s. NASA.
As you'd expect it is heritage listed, but it appears not to be protected by that. One could wonder what's the point?

In 1973 the USA was going to compete in the Supersonic Transport category. This is one of the American designs, more complex, larger and arguably advanced than either Concorde or the Tu-144. But unlike them, it was never built, and American played the 'not invented here' game by keeping Concorde out of the mainland USA. NASA.

It is a pity time is up for the tunnel, but some issues seem quite clear while others that I suspect exist are also tough:

- It's not core to NASA's needs - and they are under critical cost-justification at the moment.

- It's already had a stay of execution during Old Dominion University's use.

- It's not possible to make a tourism attraction out of it due to location and that location's security requirements.

- It's not the only or largest 'full size' wind tunnel.

I'm guessing that the crunch is not the upkeep costs but the major costs I suspect required to refurbish it to keep it sound. It's all very well working in worn out buildings, but there comes a time when the cost for repair skyrockets; and if you don't need it, it's impossible to justify spending so much on it. So it seems large triangular models will be the last things 'through' this particular piece of industrial heritage.

Probably what will be the last aircraft design tested, the X-48B transport. Now the fans have finally fallen silent. NASA.

No comments:

Post a Comment