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Langley Feels Winds of Change

Fri January 23, 2009 - Southeast Edition
Earl Swift -The Virginian-Pilot

HAMPTON, Va. (AP) Within these sky-high walls, some of history’s most storied flying machines were readied for the air — biplanes of wood, wire and canvas, Machine Age bombers and Mercury spacecraft, and just about every American fighter in World War II.

In the gale blown by its enormous, four-bladed fans, engineers tweaked wings and sheet metal for steeper climbs, higher speeds, tighter turns. Only here could they do such work, because for years, only this building at what is now NASA Langley Research Center was big enough to test real aircraft.

It was the biggest wind tunnel on Earth, and it remains among the center’s most visible structures: 434 ft. long and 10 stories tall, the Full-Scale Tunnel looms a spectral gray-white over its neighbors on the Back River shore, its every cubic inch devoted to producing a clean, constant column of air and to measuring the effects of that blast on whatever is placed in its path.

It was deemed a national historic landmark in 1985, for its cavernous test chamber has witnessed a procession of legends. Orville Wright and Howard Hughes. The Lightning, Corsair and Mustang. The first modern submarine, its shape more plane than boat. Some of the greatest minds in aeronautics manned its controls.

And now, 77 years after it opened, NASA wants to tear it down.

Citing its obsolescence and declining condition, the agency plans to demolish the tunnel starting in late August — just after the expiration of a lease to Old Dominion University, which has used the building as an aerospace laboratory since 1997.

“Once they’ve vacated the premises, we’ll move in there and get to work pretty quickly,’’ said Cheryl Allen, who will oversee the building’s removal for NASA. “In the fall you’ll start to see some significant demolition. A year from now, the facility should be gone.’’

The ODU professor who manages the facility said he’d welcome a chance to extend the lease. It isn’t likely to happen, Allen said. “Unfortunately, a number of these engineering marvels from 80 years ago have to fall by the wayside. Structurally, the facility is falling apart. It’s an eyesore.’’

Building 643, as it’s also known, looks to be in remarkably good shape for its age, considering its exterior hasn’t seen a drop of paint in more than a decade. But its steel skeleton, built outside the walls to keep the tunnel’s interior free of air-impeding obstructions, is rusted. Paint peels from the corrugated asbestos-cement panels that form most of the building’s skin. Past floods have damaged walls and electrical components, and robbed the tunnel of lung capacity. Designed to blow up to 118 mph, its twin fans now top out at 80.

The building remains a faithful time capsule of Depression-era engineering. Nose cones the size of igloos protect its fans’ propeller hubs. The Sitka spruce blades, 36 ft. from tip to tip, are turned by motors that consume 3 megawatts of electricity — enough to power a significant portion of the surrounding city.

Surfaces are streamlined and sheathed in riveted metal, and the nacelles enclosing the motors and props are supported by massive steel legs reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower. The tunnel’s original measuring equipment — six extremely sensitive Toledo scales — stand sentry below the test platform, as they have since 1931.

“We talked about using it as a museum,’’ said Allen Kilgore, deputy director of the Langley center’s ground facilities and testing. “Just about every military plane spent some amount of time in that facility.’’

Problem is, the NASA center is split in half, with its modern laboratories and hangar on the west side of a property it shares with Langley Air Force Base, and the Full-Scale Tunnel on the east, in a cluster of Air Force buildings between the river bank and runways used by the service’s F-22 Raptors.

The geography pretty much dooms the place, along with several other old tunnels, including a smaller, high-speed tunnel dormant since 1961.

“I hate to see it go. It hurts,’’ Kilgore said. “But on a military base, an active military base, getting the general public in there while you’ve got jets taking off — that wouldn’t work too well.’’

NASA’s forerunner, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, was ambitious when it drew up plans for the $1 million tunnel in 1929. The design made the building itself part of the machine: Twin, 4,000-hp fans would move air through side-by-side passages, which would each loop around opposite sides of the building perimeter and curve back to the middle. These passages would be 72 ft. tall, about 50 ft. wide, and more than 600 ft. long. As they made a final turn back toward the fans, they would merge into a single chamber, which would then narrow into an oval nozzle aimed at the testing area. It was from this 30-by-60-ft. nozzle that an artificial wind would gush.

No other tunnel came close to such a size, here or abroad, until 1945. It gave Langley engineers a huge boost in perfecting aircraft design.

Its wartime service was vital, but after a decade of tests that helped birth dozens of aircraft, the tunnel became outdated as new planes flew faster than the fans could simulate.

Tunnel manager and ODU aerospace engineer Drew Landman and his colleagues wrung new life from the old building by concentrating on the aerodynamics of land-based vehicles, beginning with tractor-trailers.

From trucks, the ODU team moved to race cars, and within a few years Langley was a popular destination for NASCAR teams seeking ways to cheat wind resistance on the track. More recently, the school has tested wind turbines and cell phone towers.

“We would like to keep the facility running longer if we possibly can,’’ Landman said.

But doing that would take money that neither landlord nor tenant has.

Fixing the most pressing structural flaws would cost at least $10 million, Allen said.

“It’s safe to say demolition is an order of magnitude less than refurbishing the facility,’’ she said. “To demolish that facility is not something that’s taken lightly or anything that we look forward to doing.

“We’re fighting the environment, we’re fighting rising costs, we’re fighting equipment issues, and in an agency with a flat or declining budget and the desire to go to the moon and Mars, it’s too much.’’

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