Film noir set or serious aerodynamics research facility? NASA blended the two in this enormous wind tunnel, the historical facility used to test the aerodynamics of everything from the Corsair through hypersonic aircraft, and the DHC-5 Buffalo through Saturn rockets.
November 1941: David Bierman standing next to a full-scale engine, nacelle, propeller, and stub-wing section of the Douglas XA-26 Invader prior to testing engine cooling and exhaust performance. Image credit: NASA
The 16-Foot Transonic Wind Tunnel at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia was built in 1939 to test out full-sized aircraft engines and propellers. It renovated over the years to keep it relevant for the latest aerodynamics research, and was used to test the Corsair, Bell X-1, de Havilland Canada DHC-5 Buffalo, Thunderbolt, B-1 Lancer, B-2 Spirit, B-58 Hustler, Lockheed C-5 Galaxy, F-14 Tomcat, McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle, F-18 Hornet, North American F-100 Super Sabre, F-111 Aardvark, F-117 Nighthawk, Harrier, North American X-15 rocket plane, Micro Craft X-43 Hyper-X, Boeing X-40, Boeing V-45 UCAV, the Apollo moon mission spacecraft and Saturn rocket, and the beloved Space Shuttles. NASA’s official tribute to the facility perpetuates the highly plausible rumour that even the Fat Man and Little Boy atomic weapons were subjected the air flow of the 16-Foot Transonic Wind Tunnel.
1952: Installing nets within the tunnel. Image credit: NASA
When the wind tunnel was in operation, air rushed around the enormous tubes at transonic speeds ranging from 67 to 447 meters per second (150 to 1,000 miles per hour). Like a river in a streambed or a car around a racetrack, that flow of air wants to superelevates in the turns, bunching up and in dense masses of air. To keep that from happening, engineers installed enormous guide vanes at each of the four major turns of the looped track. These guides sliced the air, turning the wind uniformly to preserve the smooth laminar flow essential to aerodynamic testing.
April 24, 1990: A technician prepares to open a door in the enormous guide vanes of the 16-Foot Transonic Wind Tunnel. Image credit: NASA/Bill Taub
The wind tunnel was approximately 4.8 meters (16 feet) in diameter, but the guide vanes create a towering ellipse 17.7 meters (58 feet) high by 25 meters (82 feet) wide, cutting across the wind tunnel tubes at a 45° angle. These massive guide vanes slice the air as it bunches up around turns, keeping the flow evenly distributed in this wind tunnel instead of collapsing into a mess of turbulent eddies. It was the first facility to use this slotted throat design, which allows smooth airflow at speeds over Mach 1.
January 5, 1951: A technician works on the hub and housing of the propeller blades. Image credit: NASA
Although renovated many times over the years to keep it relevant to modern research, the facility was finally mothballed in 2004 as part of cost-saving measures before being completely demolished. The aerodynamics research shifted to the more modern National Transonic Facility, the world’s largest pressurized cryogenic wind tunnel, that is capable of testing at a higher transonic Reynolds number than anywhere else, allowing researchers to investigate the impact of highly turbulent flow.
March 2, 1951: Tiny humans would not wish to be in this tunnel when the fan blades start turning. Image credit: NASA