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Perfect Light - the Lift In

by Anne Corwin

February 24, 1999

When I raced into the High Bay of the 40x80 foot wind tunnel on Friday, breathless after having charged all the way here on my bike after my math class, the Wright Flyer, looking tiny and delicate, was suspended innumerable feet above my head. I had missed the vertical "lifting", but was able to witness the actual installation of the replica into the tunnel, which was without a doubt the most fascinating thing I have ever seen while working at NASA. It was frightening in an exhilarating sort of way; I hoped I'd calculated the center of gravity right! (If I hadn't, the Flyer would have pitched forward or backward on the lifting apparatus, and quite likely would have been damaged.) I know my figures were checked, but it was still rather scary.

Slowly, slowly, the mechanics and other test personnel guided the fragile aircraft so that it hung directly over the yawning gap between the two open tunnel doors. At this point, some of the AIAA crew motioned for me to follow them. We climbed the stairs to the tunnel test section. I stood next to the sloping walls of the tunnel, just inside the entryway, watching. There were already quite a few people up there, some with cameras, some with notepads, and some simply watching. The Flyer gently made its way down toward the sting support where it was to be mounted. One thing that amazed me was the almost automated cooperation that established itself between those performing the lift-in. There were no fancy computers controlling the mechanisms; the precision and magnitude of each movement was determined by human beings. The Flyer was moved into position directly over the end of the sting support, where the bottom of it was bolted on. I cannot even begin to estimate the time it took for the installation to be completed; it seemed that the entire episode was independent of time. What had to be done had to be done; the events would unfold at their own pace.

The previous day (Thursday) rain had been rushing out of the sky in heavy violent sheets; but while the Flyer was being installed (and for a short time afterward) there was a perfect glow of sunlight streaming in through every window. Everyone I talked to remarked on the dramatically perfect lighting; it made the scene seem as if it were meant to be. When the Flyer was securely installed, I moved from my observation point in the tunnel doorway to the actual "body" of the tunnel, so that I was directly facing the plane. It looked as if it were defying gravity, perched there in the cathedral stillness. Its translucent wings absorbed the light, like the wings of a dragonfly.

There is something to be said about being inside a wind tunnel; it is definitely not like being inside of any other structure. There is something cathedral-like about the place, probably owing to the high arching walls. But at the same time, there is an earthy, warehouse feel, like a comfortable garage. I had never been in the tunnel for so long before, nor had I ever seen so many people at once milling around in the test section. It was great to talk to all the people; I spoke with NASA colleagues, the AIAA Wright Flyer crew, and their spouses. Everyone was very approachable and since I love to talk, that was a good thing!

At about 1 PM, I left the test section because I realized I was hungry. I had been there since about 10:15 AM, but it seemed like no time at all. It was a really nice atmosphere all day; everyone was smiling and talking about how well the lift went, and we all moved on to other things, such as coming up with the run schedule for the test. It almost seems like a letdown, now that the lift is over; I guess we still have the whole test ahead of us, but the lift-in is sure to be recollected as one of the dramatic highlights of the entire project.

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