by Susan Lee
March 12, 1999
On Monday I attended the pre-run meeting of the Wright Flyer Wind Tunnel Test. It takes place just off to the side of the wind tunnel entrance in a a new conference room. The AIAA members had returned from Los Angeles and they were bright-eyed and smiling. The meeting was held at 3:30 p.m. That's when the night shift begins in the wind tunnel. I work day time and most schools are on day shift too! It's hard to imagine a day that begins at three in the afternoon and goes until midnight!! The reason this wind tunnel test is being run on night shift is to save money.
The National Full Scale Aeronautics Complex has two wind tunnels in it. One is the 80 x 120 and the other is the 40 by 80 which is the wind tunnel that the Wright Flyer test is using. Only one tunnel can be used at a time.
NASA's budget was cut this year which means a lot of cost cutting is happening in the Aeronautics Division. When NASA asks people to work at night they pay them more money, called overtime. That means it's more expensive to run the tunnel at night. Since the test happening in the 80x120 wind tunnel has more people working on it, the cost of running that test would be higher on night shift than the Wright Flyer Test would be. That is why they decided to run the Wright Flyer test at night.
The AIAA members did not complain. They feel lucky to have their model in one of NASA's wind tunnels. In fact they are a bit like Orville and Wilbur who camped on the shore of North Carolina in the cold month of December. Spending their money to travel and eat away from home all for the understanding of how to make the first airplane fly. It's very inspiring to be around people like this.
Since I work days and I am not allowed to work overtime. I went home after that to make dinner for my family and make sure that the homework was started. I kept wondering how things were going in the wind tunnel. After dinner, I left for a quick trip back to work to see how the test was going. I arrived about 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. It was dark and cold. Ames seemed deserted. The parking lots which are full during the day had only the odd car or two in them.
When I pulled up to the parking near the wind tunnel the lot was full! I went into the high bay, expecting to hear a roar of wind but the tunnel was not loud. I rode the elevator up to the third floor, there was no one there and the door to the tunnel was closed. Of course, everyone must be in the control room on the second floor. I went down the stairs past pipes and under the tunnel floor and up to the control room. When I walked in everyone was there and looking completely intense and preoccupied.
It took a minute to understand what was happening. Finally I walked up to Ira Chandler. He explained they were on their second run. The wind was finally blowing over the wings of the AIAA 1903 Wright Flyer model! I felt so excited. At first I couldn't figure out why everyone wasn't standing and cheering like they do at the shuttle launch at Kennedy Space Center! To me this was every bit as exciting. I looked at the television monitors that displayed the output of video camera's on the tunnel walls. You could see the tufts on the trailing edge of the wings sticking straight out behind the wings.
One of these cameras was focused on the underside of the wing. Several of the AIAA members were gathered around this watching the tufts and talking about what they were seeing. Ruben Torrecampo was running the tunnel fans. He had a head set on and was taking his cue from Pete Zell who also had a head set on. Pete was walking back and forth checking the monitors and the read on on the digital displays.
I asked Mike Lopez how things were going, he replied that everything seemed to be going normally. He and all the NASA employees were pretty focused this was their work and they were all working attentively.
Craig Hange also had a head set on. He was sitting at a Macintosh computer running a Lab View software program that was collecting data. On his left was Paul Stuart who was running the NPRIME system. On his right was Mike Simundich and Rich Grimms watching the data collection carefully. It was a very wired atmosphere but I'm sure I was wearing a huge smile the whole time. When they completed the data run it was time for lunch. People broke up into small groups wandering of to get a bit to eat. (Did you ever eat lunch at 7:30?)
I decided I'd better go home because it was back to work early the next morning. I wonder what Orville and Wilbur would say about all this. I bet they would have found it even more exciting than I did!!