Mission Ready – Today and Tomorrow: PWT staff testing national assets for 60 years

ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, TENN. -- April 2017 marks 60 years that AEDC teammates have operated the AEDC Propulsion Wind Tunnel, a one-of-a-kind test facility where the nation’s defense systems have benefited from test capabilities critical to development.

The first test run in 1957 in the 16-foot Transonic Tunnel, or 16T, was documented by Phil Tarver, then an AEDC staff photographer. However, public photos were never taken of the test article nor was there a mention of the name of the test article.

The facility has three tunnels that are operational which also includes, besides 16T, the 16-foot Supersonic Tunnel and the 4-foot Transonic Tunnel.

These tunnels test the aerodynamics of flight vehicles at high altitude conditions and speeds reaching up to Mach 4.75.

The PWT facility actually had its beginning as far back as the end of World War II when Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, questioned how the Germans made such rapid progress in developing high-performance jet aircraft and rocket-powered missiles.

To Arnold, the most important lesson of the war was the need for pre-eminence in air research to provide cutting-edge technology for national security.

And that is the role the PWT facility has played for 60 years. Every major aircraft, rocket and manned spacecraft program of the past six decades has sent models through the facility’s tunnels, simulating conditions they experience during flight.

Tests in the facility reduce the risk and cost of developing aircraft by solving problems before the first aircraft is built or test flown. Aircraft modifications are checked out, supplying critical data to customers that is needed to determine a plane’s optimal shape.

PWT was the first large-scale-models testing facility in the United States.

The impact of PWT on flight testing was recognized in 1989 when the American Society of Mechanical Engineers named the facility an International Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark. The organization designated PWT as a landmark because of its historical importance in developing mechanical engineering.

Planning for PWT began in January 1950 when aircraft propulsion industry representatives met with the Air Force Research and Development Board on Facilities and agreed there was a need for a supersonic wind tunnel with a 15-foot diameter test section.

Revisions of test plans enlarged the test section from the original projection to a 16-foot cross-section, and in 1956, the transonic circuit of the tunnel underwent its first powered calibration test.

The next year, the first test involving a jet engine was performed in the 16-foot Transonic Tunnel.

Editorial note: This story includes text from a previous story written by the AEDC Public Affairs office.