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A visit to Farnborough’s amazing wind tunnels

August 27, 2014
Farnboro Wind T 177 (640x480)

Metal fan blades on Q121 wind tunnel at Farnborough, 1935

I recently had a rare opportunity to see two wind tunnels in Farnborough, Hampshire. Once part of the now closed Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE), the tunnels were opened for the Farnborough Air Show and contained art installations curated by Artliner. But, however worthy the art, the tunnels themselves were the real stars of the show.

Farnboro Wind T 136 (640x480)

Mahogany fan blades on Q121 wind tunnel at Farnborough, 1935

The tunnels enabled scientists to test aircraft aerodynamics, using either entire small planes or  expertly-crafted scale models that were placed in the test chamber (some models are now on show in the nearby Farnborough Air Science Trust Museum). But contrary to what I expected, the tunnels worked by drawing air into the test chamber and not blowing it out, as drawn-in air minimized turbulence that could distort the test results.

Farnboro Wind T 145 (480x640)

Interior of the building housing Q121 wind tunnel at Farnborough, 1935

Resembling the set of a science fiction film, Q121 is the most impressive tunnel. Built in 1935, this low-speed wind tunnel was used for testing a wide range of planes, including the Hurricane. Perhaps unusually in this health and safety obsessed world, I could walk inside the tunnel, entering between two sets of giant fan blades – one mahogany and one metal – and, once inside, I squeezed between floor-to-celling concrete fins that channelled the airflow.  Entering this dark, cavernous space reminded me of the time I stumbled into the darkness of Miroslaw Balka’s Turbine Hall installation in Tate Modern.

Farnboro Wind T 125 (640x480)

Exterior of R52 wind tunnel building at Farnborough, 1916

The other tunnel is in the UK’s first purpose-built  wind tunnel building, R52 . Built in 1916, it now contains a small, low-turbulence wind tunnel made of fine-jointed wood from 1945.

Farnboro Wind T 247 (640x480)

Rebuilt portable airship shed at Farnborough, 1912

Near the tunnel buildings is the impressive portable airship shed, 1912, which was designed to be easily dismantled and reassembled. Unlike the tunnel interiors, this building is easy to visit, as it’s now a landmark in Farnborough Business Park. This little-known but spectacular structure is lit up at night and seems equal to the work of that great Italian engineer Pier Nervi (such as his Hall B for the Turin Exhibition, 1947-1954).

 

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