Winding back time

During one of our first tours of the MIT campus, I took special note of a strange brick with an enormous tube protruding from its side. Over the door, it read “Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel.” I had to see inside.

The name notwithstanding, the Wright Brothers never used this building, though some claim Orville attended its dedication. For 80 years, it has been tucked behind the great dome of MIT in the AeroAstro department. Scientists and engineers have used it to test model planes, wings, and even model cities to see the effects of gale-force winds on skyscrapers. Throughout the hallways of AeroAstro hang enormous posters of MIT alumni in the International Space Station, aboard the Space Shuttle, or surrounded by various flying machines.

Guided by the program’s wry communications director, Bill Litant, two other fellows and I made our way through the halls to the program’s small hangar. There, a variety of model planes and rockets hung from the rafters. Cross-sections of jet engines rested on blocks for students to study. A small wooden wind machine stands ready for use in small-scale tests.

The AeroAstro hangar, where projects in various stages of construction and deconstruction hang in suspended animation.

The wind tunnel is a short jaunt from the hangar. We step past thesis projects in various stages of assembly and amble up a set of rickety steps. Inside the wind tunnel’s operation room sit consoles that might have looked dated when the building was erected in 1938. Models of planes, wings and other shapes hang from the walls. At one point, a model of Epcot’s Spaceship Earth was used to determine the effects Hurricane Matthew might have on the real thing.

One of the control consoles. Despite the flat-screen LCD monitor, the console screams 1960.

An oval, submarine door (actually from a submarine, not just styled like one) provides access to the wind tunnel itself. Lest you think crossing the wind tunnel’s threshold would transport you into a magical world of high technology, let me remind you that this building was erected in 1938. Also, no matter how much money research universities have, it’s never enough. (Except Harvard.) Duct tape and kludges abound.

And so stepping through the door puts you on a plywood bridge with yellow caution tape warning of tripping hazards. The plywood bridge crosses into a giant metal tube that is the wind tunnel itself. Wood and tin, the bright tunnel has a cross-section resembling a squished oval about 7 feet high and 10 feet across. The test platform features a post on which models are mounted. The post’s pitch and yaw is controlled by the consoles back in the operation room.

A door from the control room leads to a small bridge to the tunnel itself.

On either side of the platform the tunnel expands — is “unsquishes” a word? — into a tall circle with enormous fans and fins to guide the air around the circular tunnel. Turning on the wind tunnel means engaging a 2,000-horsepower fan with blades roughly seven feet long. The motor draws two million watts of power, so you don’t just flip it on willy-nilly. You need to coordinate its operation with MIT’s power plant. Although the wind tunnel has the potential to generate wind speeds of 400 mph, the cost of all that wind is so much noise that people several miles away complained they couldn’t carry on conversations.

Those complaints will soon be moot, though. As the spring semester comes to a close, so will the 80-year run of the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel. It is set to be dismantled over the summer. For many students, computer models are more efficient and effective than giant wind machines. But for those who still prefer the real thing, there’s good news. A new wind tunnel, also to be named the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel, will replace the one being torn down. Thanks to an $18 million gift from Boeing, the new wind tunnel, set to open in 2020, will be quieter, larger and more energy efficient.

Hopefully I’ll get another tour then. Meanwhile, if you want to see the wind tunnel in action, here’s a video created by the MIT press office that explains even more of its history.

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