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Smiles and Memories: A Final 'Goodbye' to the Langley Full-Scale Tunnel
October 16, 2009

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It was a grand finale of sorts, a celebration that revisited the 78-year history of the Full-Scale Tunnel at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

Engineers mingled with mayors. Alumni mingled with a new generation of NASA. Recollections mingled with respect.

"Many times it is referred to as 'the' Langley Wind Tunnel," said Joe Chambers, author and former tunnel branch head, who spoke to a standing room-only crowd at Langley's Reid Conference Center. In fact, it was only one of dozens of wind tunnels at NASA Langley.

A slideshow of the tunnel's history shown through photographs and quotes included music from the decades of the tunnel's operation. It set the ambiance for the ceremony that marked the official "goodbye." Demolition of the 30-by-60-foot tunnel is expected to begin early next year.

"We did 796 tests in this facility," said Chambers.

Chambers explained that the vision for a tunnel that would be 60 feet (18.3 m) across, 30 feet (9.1 m) high and with capabilities of speed surpassing 100 miles per hour (161 kph) started as a model in 1929. That model was under construction by 1930 and dedicated in 1931. It was built for $980,000.

As ideas arose, the tunnel evolved. In 1939, wooden blades replaced the original metal ones. "Those blades are the same blades that are in the tunnel today," Chambers said. Applause erupted.

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During the years of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the tunnel attracted pioneers and luminaries like Orville Wright, Charles Lindbergh, Glenn Curtiss and Howard Hughes.

"When NASA was formed, the facility changed and began to develop space ideas," Chambers said. Modern times called for modern upgrades. Chambers noted the addition of a flight control computer.

And according to Chambers, the wind tunnel was producing more than just critical test results for improved flight - it produced four NASA Center Directors. "There is no other wind tunnel or organization that provided four center directors to the agency," he said.

It also produced memories.

Gorden Helsel, mayor of Poquoson, Va., stared forward at the slideshow. "It's a landmark to this area," he said. "To a lot of folks out here, it's like losing an old friend."

He glanced over at the F-22 model. "I flew in one of those," Helsel said. "I spent 45 minutes in the air and was glad to get back on the ground." It was an experience made possible through testing at the full-scale tunnel.

Long Yip worked in the tunnel from 1977 to 1990. "I remember opening a textbook on aeronautics and the first thing I saw was the Full Scale Tunnel. I never imagined I would work there," he said.

Bob Huston began working at the tunnel in 1958. He recalled a time when one of his tests was interrupted by testing for Neil Armstrong and the lunar lander. "The test I was working on was delayed for six months," he said. In hindsight, Huston didn't mind so much.

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Following the reception, many guests chose to revisit the tunnel located on the Langley Air Force Base side of NASA Langley. When attending alumni spoke up during a tour, the crowd circled and listened.

Clyde McLemore who worked there from 1947 to 1980, described a time when workers used slide rules, calculators and computers.

"When you say 'computers' - you are talking about a person?" asked Dan Murri as he led guests throughout the tunnel.

"Yes, it was a girl we called a computer," McLemore responded with a smile.

The group continued on through the curvy turbulence vanes and across a walkway. It was the same walkway that Cameron Diaz walked on for a scene in the movie, "The Box," which is set to be released nationwide on Nov. 6.

At the next halt, McLemore looked up at a wooden propeller that stood about three stories tall. "The nose cone and tail cone were mine," he said.

"You designed those?" Murri asked.

"Yes," McLemore responded.

For many on the tour, the tunnel was being seen through the eyes of the alumni. And for the alumni, the tunnel was being seen through their younger selves.

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Huston smiled at the tunnel's interior. He pointed to specific areas and recalled a funny story or a test that took place there. "Even when we worked extra hours during the war, it didn't matter much. It was still a fun place to work," he said.

The facility survived nearly eight decades. Its memory and history will survive much longer and so will its results. Tests conducted there include all of the World War II aircrafts, the P-51 aircraft, the Mercury entry capsule, submarines and NASCAR vehicles, to name a few.

The Langley Full-Scale Tunnel is being preserved virtually at:

Denise Lineberry
The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center

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Alumni and guests tour the Langley Full-Scale Tunnel.
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The Langley Full-Scale Tunnel, October 1930.
The Langley Full-Scale Tunnel's huge exterior from the Little Back River in October 1930.
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NASA
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A group of employees who worked in the Full-Scale Tunnel.
After a celebratory reception, some of the employees and alumni who worked in the Langley Full-Scale Tunnel gathered in front of the Reid Conference Center.
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Clyde McLemore (R) offered his personal experiences as Dan Murri (L) guided guests.
Clyde McLemore (R) offered his personal experiences as Dan Murri (L) guided guest throughout different areas of the Langley Full-Scale Tunnel. "If I get anything wrong, you all can let me know," Murri respectfully said to the alumni that were present on the tour.
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NASA / Sean Smith
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