Visiting the historic wind tunnels in Farnborough

Some readers may have heard of the wind tunnels in Farnborough. Even fewer will have seen them, as they were in the secret Royal Aircraft Establishment [RAE]. The UK has a proud history in the development of wind tunnels. Recently we visited two of the preserved historic wind tunnels in Farnborough.

A wind tunnel is used to help solve the aerodynamics issues of aircraft and aircraft components. A smooth and stable flow of air is passed over a scale model of an aircraft, or, a whole aircraft where the wind tunnel is large enough. A variety of measurements are then observed and recorded. Aircraft wing design has been and remains one of the important uses of wind tunnels.

Having covered what they are, we can get down to the historic wind tunnels. The RAE, and its predecessors at Farnborough, played a central role in the development of aviation in the UK, and its wind tunnels were a key part of that role. The RAE closed in 1993, with its research work being part privatised. The Farnborough Air Sciences Trust [FAST] was established to save the heritage of the RAE and its wind tunnels.

There are three wind tunnel buildings in Farnborough, known as R52, Q121, and R133. Only the first two can be visited with asbestos in R133 limiting access. The buildings remain as they were when last used over 20 years ago.

The R52 building dates from 1911 and is Grade 1 listed. It originally housed two 7-foot wind tunnels. Both are now gone, though one is now located at the University of Southampton, in their place is a ‘low turbulence’ 4 x 3 foot tunnel built in 1946.

Iconic is a much misused word, though can be applied to the Q121 building, which is recognisable to all who pass by. Again it’s Grade 1 listed. Never have I known what went on inside. Now I know. It houses the 24 foot wind tunnel. Actually, the whole building is the wind tunnel. It was opened in 1935 and remained in use until 1996.

The wind tunnels are not open to the general public. Tours of the wind tunnels are by pre-arrangement, last for around 2.5 hours, and a group of no more than 20.  Wind tunnels remain important for aeronautical research, as the March 2018 article The future role of wind tunnels in test and development in Aerospace Testing International magazine.

Here are a few photos of the buildings, and their wind tunnels.

Revealing article on the beginning of manned flight

American Scientist Online looks back at one of its articles from November-December 2003
Volume 91, Number 6, entitled First in Flight? by David Schneider. It includes the fascinating story of the Wright Brothers famous first flight aircraft residing in the Science Museum in London from 1928 to 1948.

Here’s what the Science Museum say in Nine Things You Didn’t Know About the Science Museum

2. The Wright flyer, the world’s first heavier than air aircraft to fly, was originally displayed at the Science Museum. Orville Wright refused to donate the aircraft to the Smithsonian museum, instead loaning it to the Science Museum in 1928. The Science Museum had a replica of the aircraft built (on display in the Flight gallery) before returning the original to the Smithsonian in 1948.

Here’s the much longer, and instructive, First in Flight? article that puts the Wright Brothers achievements in the context of earlier attempts at flight,

1904 WrightFlyer

Orville in flight over Huffman Prairie in Wright Flyer II on November 16, 1904.

The centennial of the Wright brothers’ famous first flight in 1903 fast approaches. As part of the commemoration, the Smithsonian is opening a special exhibition in which the Wright Flyer, the brothers’ pioneering airplane, will be displayed at eye level at the National Air and Space Museum, allowing the interested public to take a close look. On December 17th, exactly 100 years after the fact, at least one of several replicas of the Wright Flyer will attempt a repeat performance over the dunes near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, with some 25,000 spectators expected to be in attendance. Those organizing various aspects of the national celebration have, of course, had to grapple with a century-old question, one of particular importance at this great moment of national pride: Were the Wright brothers really the first human beings to fly?

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