Walking through the massive superstructure that is the Langley Full-Scale Tunnel is like taking a walk through the past. Visitors get a sense not only of the history of aviation, but the history of engineering in the last century.
The facility at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., was built in 1930 to test full-sized aircraft and large-scale models. Its construction came at a pivotal time in the 20th century - the Great Depression. That meant the construction team was able to take advantage of cheap materials and a large pool of unemployed engineers to erect a solid steel framework that has withstood time and a number of East Coast hurricanes.
The tunnel is 434 feet (132 m) long and 222 feet (68 m) wide, with a maximum height of 97 feet (29.6 m). The actual section where airplanes and models are tested is 30 feet (9.1 m) high, 60 feet (18.3 m) wide and 56 feet (17.1 m) long. The wooden propellers used to create the tunnel's airflow are about three stories (30 feet, 9.1 m) tall.
Aviation pioneers flocked to the tunnel for engineering conferences - men with names like Wright, Lindbergh and Hughes.
The tunnel has overseen much of modern flight's progress from the early bi-planes in the 1930's to the latest supersonic and blended wing body advanced concepts. Not only did engineers use it to assess the United States first space capsule, others came here to re-engineer America's first powered aircraft - a reproduction of the Wright Flyer.
"It gives me goose bumps to think about what we did in this tunnel. Orville Wright was a great part of having this tunnel built. He was very active in the NACA at that time," said Ken Hyde, founder of The Wright Experience in Warrenton, Va., that built the Wright Flyer reproduction.
Wright, of the pioneering Wright brothers, visited NASA Langley and the full-scale tunnel a number of times when he was part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.
Even modern day NASA engineers designing future aircraft can't help but be aware of the past when they test in the historic tunnel.
"It's kind of like a musician playing Carnegie Hall," said NASA Langley senior research engineer Dan Vicroy. "It's got a lot of history. It's incredible to think that we're testing an advanced configuration in a tunnel that's tested almost all the historic airplanes - the P-51s, the P-38 Lightnings, all the World War II aircraft and others since then that have been tested in this facility."
Engineers and students from Old Dominion University in nearby Norfolk operate the tunnel.
NASA Langley Research Center