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04/01/1997 08:00:00

Historic Wind Tunnel To Be Decommissioned

PASADENA—The historic 10-foot wind tunnel at the California Institute of Technology will pass into the aviation-history books on April 30, when it is decommissioned after 68 years of continuous service.

Conceived in the 1920s by Theodore von Kármán ("the father of aeronautics"), the wind tunnel was used to test many of the warplanes that helped the Allies win World War II — among them, the P-51 Mustang, the B-24 Liberator, the B-17 Flying Fortress, the B-29 Superfortress, the twin-fusilage P-38 Lightning, the B-25 Mitchell, and the night fighter P-61 Black Widow.

So important was the wind tunnel to the war effort, current manager Gerald Landry says, that armed guards were posted around the building in which it is housed, and Caltech scientists and engineers worked around-the clock shifts. Just before the war began, the tunnel was officially inspected by Charles A. Lindbergh, who was on special assignment from the government to inspect the nation's aeronautics-research capabilities.

The wind tunnel was built with a grant from the Daniel Guggenheim Fund, which also made possible the founding of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory (GALCIT) and an entire academic building in which to house the facility. Known to this day as Guggenheim Laboratory, the building is dominated by the four-story wind tunnel at its center.

"This has been an internationally known facility for many decades," says Landry, who has been crew chief of GALCIT since 1973, and manager since 1986. "A group of astronauts and scientists from Russia came to the United States in 1990, and this was the third thing on their list to see while in the country."

Though the 10-foot wind tunnel will be completely dismantled by summer, Caltech will by no means be without facilities that meet or exceed the original wind tunnel's specifications. More recent campus additions, in fact, include a Mach 20 hypersonic wind tunnel that can emulate conditions of a spacecraft returning to Earth's atmosphere from interplanetary flight.

The 10-foot wind tunnel itself will be replaced by a smaller, more modern two-story unit in the same location in Guggenheim Laboratory.

"It's working just as well as it did 68 years ago," Landry says, adding that the tunnel's last battery of scientific tests was completed on February 25. "It's being decommissioned primarily to acquire more classroom, lab, and office space, and to modernize.

"It's paid for itself all its life."

Written by Robert Tindol