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NASA's massive Wind Tunnels that were used to test Aircrafts, 1925-1990

NASA craft undergo thorough testing through the agency’s 42 major wind tunnels before they are cleared for launch once all parameters are met. A wind tunnel can be as small as a few inches wide or as large as a full-size aircraft. Large powerful fans often pull air through the tube. The object being tested is held stationary inside the tunnel until it is ready to be tested. It can be an aerodynamic test object, such as a cylinder or airfoil, an individual component, a small model of the vehicle, or a full-sized vehicle. If the stationary object were moving through the air, the air would move around it. Air can be studied in different ways; smoke or dye can be placed in the air and can be observed as it moves around an object.

During the early days of aeronautical research, when many were attempting to develop successful heavier-than-air flying machines, wind tunnels were first invented at the end of the 19th century. Originally, the wind tunnel was intended to be used to reverse the conventional paradigm of air standing still while an object flies through it: instead of the air standing still, the air would move past the object at speed, giving the same result. A stationary observer could then observe the flying object in action and measure the aerodynamic forces acting on it.

In 1916, the US Navy built one of the largest wind tunnels in the world at the Washington Navy Yard. Nearly 11 feet (3.4 m) was the diameter of the inlet and around 7 feet (2.1 m) was the diameter of the discharge. The paddle-type fan blades were driven by an electric motor with 500 horsepower.

The Langley Research Center in Virginia, built a 30-foot-by-60-foot wind tunnel in 1931 by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The tunnel was powered by a pair of electric motors rated at 4,000 horsepower. The layout was a closed-loop format with a double-return and could accommodate full-size real aircraft as well as scale models. Despite its designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1995, the tunnel was eventually closed, and demolition began in 2010.

During World War II, the United States built at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, one of the largest wind tunnels at that time. The wind tunnel begins at 45 feet (14 meters) in diameter and narrows to 20 feet (6.1 meters). Two 40-foot (12 m) fans were driven by a 40,000 hp electric motor. Models of large aircraft could be tested at speeds of 400 mph (640 km/h). Throughout World War II, the US had built eight new wind tunnels, including one that was the largest in the world at Moffett Field near Sunnyvale, California, designed for testing full-size aircraft at speeds of less than 250 mph, and a vertical tunnel at Wright Field, Ohio, where the wind flow is upward and the concept designs for the first primitive helicopters were tested there.

A few years later, specialized tunnels were developed that simulated subsonic, transonic, supersonic, and even hypersonic speeds, which is five times the speed of sound. The fiery heat of atmospheric re-entry can be simulated in some tunnels, and the buildup of ice on the upper atmosphere can be explored in others.

#1 A Boeing P-26A fighter mounted in the 30 x 60 Full Scale Tunnel.

A Boeing P-26A fighter mounted in the 30 x 60 Full Scale Tunnel.

Nicknamed the “Peashooter,” it was the first Army fighter to be constructed entirely of metal and to employ the low-wing monoplane configuration, 1934.

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#2 A Langley researcher observes a Sperry M-1 Messenger, the first full-scale airplane tested in the Propeller Research Tunnel, 1927.

A Langley researcher observes a Sperry M-1 Messenger, the first full-scale airplane tested in the Propeller Research Tunnel, 1927.

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#3 A prototype Vought-Sikorsky V-173 airplane mounted in the Full Scale Wind Tunnel, 1941.

A prototype Vought-Sikorsky V-173 airplane mounted in the Full Scale Wind Tunnel, 1941.

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#4 A Sikorsky YR-4B/HNS-1 helicopter, the first mass-produced chopper, in the 30 x 60 Full Scale Tunnel, 1944.

A Sikorsky YR-4B/HNS-1 helicopter, the first mass-produced chopper, in the 30 x 60 Full Scale Tunnel, 1944.

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#5 The 40 x 80-foot wind tunnel at Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, Moffett Field, California.

The 40 x 80-foot wind tunnel at Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, Moffett Field, California.

At the time of its construction it was the largest wind tunnel in the world, 1947.

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#6 The 16-foot High Speed Tunnel at Langley Research Center, 1949.

The 16-foot High Speed Tunnel at Langley Research Center, 1949.

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#7 One of three control panels in the control room of the Lewis Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel, 1955.

One of three control panels in the control room of the Lewis Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel, 1955.

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#8 A 24-foot swinging valve in the 10 x 10-foot Supersonic Wind Tunnel, 1956.

A 24-foot swinging valve in the 10 x 10-foot Supersonic Wind Tunnel, 1956.

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#9 An ACN Nozzle model in the 8 x 6-foot Supersonic Wind Tunnel Test-Section, 1957.

An ACN Nozzle model in the 8 x 6-foot Supersonic Wind Tunnel Test-Section, 1957.

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#10 Engineers make a check of a model of a supersonic aircraft before a test run in the 10 x 10-foot Supersonic Wind Tunnel test section, 1957.

Engineers make a check of a model of a supersonic aircraft before a test run in the 10 x 10-foot Supersonic Wind Tunnel test section, 1957.

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#11 A Mercury Capsule model in the Spin Tunnel, 1959.

A Mercury Capsule model in the Spin Tunnel, 1959.

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#12 Shadowgraphs of fluid disturbances around high-velocity vehicles demonstrate how a blunt-bodied vehicle produces a shockwave in front of the vehicle, which allows it to stay cooler during reentry, 1960.

Shadowgraphs of fluid disturbances around high-velocity vehicles demonstrate how a blunt-bodied vehicle produces a shockwave in front of the vehicle, which allows it to stay cooler during reentry, 1960.

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#13 A 10-story bank of vanes which turn the air around one of the four corners of the 40 x 80-foot Wind Tunnel at Ames Research Center.

A 10-story bank of vanes which turn the air around one of the four corners of the 40 x 80-foot Wind Tunnel at Ames Research Center.

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#14 A one-inch scale model of a typical supersonic airplane design is examined before being installed for sonic boom studies in the four-foot supersonic tunnel at Langley Research Center.

A one-inch scale model of a typical supersonic airplane design is examined before being installed for sonic boom studies in the four-foot supersonic tunnel at Langley Research Center.

Pressure measurements are made in the tunnel up to 50 inches away from the model, simulating altitudes up to 40,000 feet, 1960.

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#15 W. C. Sleeman, Jr. inspects a model of a paraglider in the 300 mph, 7 x 10-foot Wind Tunnel.

W. C. Sleeman, Jr. inspects a model of a paraglider in the 300 mph, 7 x 10-foot Wind Tunnel.

The paraglider, or “Rogallo Wing,” was proposed for use in the Gemini Program. It would have allowed Gemini to make precision landings on land, rather than in the water. It failed to deploy reliably and was canceled. 1962.

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#16 Technicians install a model of an Apollo command module in the 9 x 6-foot Thermal Structures Tunnel for tests of possible heat shield materials, 1962.

Technicians install a model of an Apollo command module in the 9 x 6-foot Thermal Structures Tunnel for tests of possible heat shield materials, 1962.

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#17 A full scale model of the HL-10 lifting body mounted in the 30 x 60 Full Scale Tunnel at Langley, 1964.

A full scale model of the HL-10 lifting body mounted in the 30 x 60 Full Scale Tunnel at Langley, 1964.

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#18 The Bell Lunar Landing Training Vehicle in the 30 x 60 Full Scale Tunnel.

The Bell Lunar Landing Training Vehicle in the 30 x 60 Full Scale Tunnel.

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#19 The aeroshell which protected the Viking lander during its entry into the Martian atmosphere, 1973

The aeroshell which protected the Viking lander during its entry into the Martian atmosphere, 1973

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#20 Thermal insulation materials for the Space Shuttle are tested at high temperatures, 1975.

Thermal insulation materials for the Space Shuttle are tested at high temperatures, 1975.

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#21 A space shuttle model undergoes a wind tunnel test simulating the ionized gasses that surround a shuttle as it reenters the atmosphere, 1975.

A space shuttle model undergoes a wind tunnel test simulating the ionized gasses that surround a shuttle as it reenters the atmosphere, 1975.

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#22 A Marshall Space Flight Center engineer holds a replica of the proposed Liquid Booster Module while observing the testing of a small Space Shuttle orbiter model at Wind Tunnel, 1980

A Marshall Space Flight Center engineer holds a replica of the proposed Liquid Booster Module while observing the testing of a small Space Shuttle orbiter model at Wind Tunnel, 1980

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#23 The Rutan Model 33 VariEze was built by the Model and Composites Section of Langley Research Center and then tested in the 30 x 60 Full Scale Tunnel.

The Rutan Model 33 VariEze was built by the Model and Composites Section of Langley Research Center and then tested in the 30 x 60 Full Scale Tunnel.

The craft was not built for flight, but did have an electric motor installed to drive the propeller as part of its aerodynamics study in the tunnel, 1981.

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#24 A researcher examines the ice build-up on a turboprop engine nacelle in the Icing Research Tunnel, 1983.

A researcher examines the ice build-up on a turboprop engine nacelle in the Icing Research Tunnel, 1983.

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#25 NASA technician W.L. Jones inspects a transport model Pathfinder I between test runs at Langley’s National Transonic Facility, 1986.

NASA technician W.L. Jones inspects a transport model Pathfinder I between test runs at Langley’s National Transonic Facility, 1986.

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#26 A model aircraft is tested in the Spin Tunnel, 1987.

A model aircraft is tested in the Spin Tunnel, 1987.

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#27 A test of Space Shuttle main engine failure at the John H. Glenn Research Center, 1988.

A test of Space Shuttle main engine failure at the John H. Glenn Research Center, 1988.

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#28 One of the two 34-foot-diameter fans in the 16-Foot Transonic Tunnel at Langley Research Center, 1990.

One of the two 34-foot-diameter fans in the 16-Foot Transonic Tunnel at Langley Research Center, 1990.

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#29 The Pioneer Aerospace Parafoil undergoes testing in the world’s largest wind tunnel, the 80 x 120-Foot Tunnel at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, 1990

The Pioneer Aerospace Parafoil undergoes testing in the world’s largest wind tunnel, the 80 x 120-Foot Tunnel at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, 1990

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#30 Turning vanes in the 16-Foot Tunnel at Langley, 1990.

Turning vanes in the 16-Foot Tunnel at Langley, 1990.

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#31 A shuttle model is magnetically suspended in the transparent hexagonal test section of the MIT/NASA Langley 6 inch MSBS.

A shuttle model is magnetically suspended in the transparent hexagonal test section of the MIT/NASA Langley 6 inch MSBS.

Massive power supplies are required to drive electromagnets for model position control. The low speed (Mach 0.5) wind tunnel was handcrafted from mahogany, 1991.

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#32 An F-16 model in a flow visualization test using smoke and a laser light sheet to illuminate the smoke, 1992.

An F-16 model in a flow visualization test using smoke and a laser light sheet to illuminate the smoke, 1992.

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Written by Benjamin Grayson

Former Bouquet seller now making a go with blogging and graphic designing. I love creating & composing history articles and lists.

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