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.