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The Price of Progress
By: Kathy Barnstorff

Progress can be bittersweet. Just ask some of the employees who worked in the 16 Foot Transonic and the Langley Full Scale Tunnels. Both are being taking down, piece by piece … victims of age and studies that said they were no longer needed for a number or reasons.

Langley's Full-Scale Tunnel, demolition photos.
Credit: NASA/Sandy Gibbs, George Homich and Sean Smith

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Their demolition is part of Langley's ongoing repair-by-replacement strategy and revitalization to make the center more efficient and better prepared for the future. But that doesn't make it any easier for workers who spent their careers in the facilities.

"The end of the Full Scale Tunnel is sad," wrote Sue Grafton in the publication "Full Scale Tunnel Memories," put together to honor the 30-by-60 wind tunnel's almost 80-year history. "But I have enough great memories to last forever."

"One thing I want everyone to know, it was a great place to work, and I hear that often from people (engineers, co-op students and technicians) who had the privilege to pass through its doors," she added in a recent email.

Grafton spent 33 years in the Full Scale Tunnel. She has had a lot of time to process and reflect on the loss of the once busy facility on Langley Air Force Base. NASA Langley decommissioned the tunnel in 1995. Then Old Dominion University operated it from 1997 to 2009.

Langley's 16 Foot Transonic Tunnel, demolition photos.
Credit: NASA/Sandy Gibbs, George Homich and Sean Smith

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Still seeing the Langley Full Scale Tunnel, or LFST, actually being dismantled has been poignant, even for people who had a brief association with it. The facility, literally, was a huge presence - with its two propeller assemblies bigger than a three-story building and test section 30 feet wide by 60 feet long. It was also known worldwide, having hosted the likes of Orville Wright, Charles Lindbergh and Howard Hughes – as well as testing hundreds of air and spacecraft since it started operation in 1931.

Dharmendra Patel, project manager for the X-48C blended wing body prototype at Boeing Research & Technology, led the last test and was in the control room for last wind-off on Sept.3, 2009. He recently returned for another X-48 test in the much smaller tunnel 12-Foot Low Speed Tunnel that’s not far from where crews were taking apart the LFST.

"Between the two X-48 tests in 2006 and 2009, I spent over six months at the Full Scale Tunnel," said Patel. "It was a great privilege for me to have been a part of its long history of service in advancing aviation."

Even more visible to the community, both here on center and for folks driving past, is the deconstruction of the 16-Foot Transonic Tunnel. It has been a landmark along Armistead Avenue since it became operational in 1941, just two days before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

"I don't drive by it much," said Larry Leavitt, who started as a co-op at the tunnel in 1974 and is now on detail as the center's chief engineer. "It's really hard for me to see it [being torn down]. Sort of like the country song "The House that Built Me" the 16-Foot was the facility that built me."

Charles Poupard who also worked at the 16-foot, starting as an apprentice then progressing to lead technician and eventually section head of the facility, echoed Leavitt's sentiment. "I learned a lot there," said Poupard. "Some of the things we got to do there were amazing – working on cutting edge air and spacecraft, like the F-15, B-2 bomber and the space shuttle. It made you feel like you were doing something important for the country. Working there was a wonderful experience and I met and worked with a lot of great people."

The tunnels are part of a $5.7 million demolition contract, awarded in January of 2010 and managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. But the actual cost of the project to the government will be $3.6 million, according to the Center Operations Directorate, because more than two million dollars worth of the materials, including steel and concrete, will be recycled.

In all four tunnels are slated to come down, as part of a NASA-wide effort to remove excess capability and reduce deferred maintenance costs. Work on the Langley Full Scale Tunnel started first. It began in the fall of 2010 and is now almost complete. After the LFST work is finished – two smaller tunnels, also on the Langley Air Force Base side, will come down. One is the 8-Foot Transonic Pressure Tunnel that was closed in 1996. The other is the 8-Foot High Speed Tunnel, a historic landmark that was deactivated in 1956.

On the main NASA Langley campus, internal work at the 16-Foot Transonic Tunnel started in late 2010, with external work beginning in March of this year. It is expected to be complete late summer-early fall. All the demolition work is scheduled to be complete by the end of 2011.

Langley officials have worked hard to make sure all the tunnel's achievements have been properly documented in print and imagery and artifacts preserved in displays and museums. Some of the blades from the 16-Foot have been incorporated into the first New Town building at Langley and parts of the other tunnels are slated to go to museums, including the Smithsonian Institution.

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