PASADENA— A distinguished facility that made a significant contribution to the World War II era passed into history April 30 when the California Institute of Technology officially closed down its 68-year-old wind tunnel. The day-long ceremony was highlighted by a flyover of four warplanes, three of which were originally tested in the tunnel.
About 200 were on hand for the closing ceremony on the Caltech campus. Among those in attendance were former wind-tunnel workers, scientists, and aeronautical engineers, as well as pilots, war veterans, surviving spouses, and aviation buffs who came to campus to bid a fond farewell to the test facility.
"People had tears in their eyes and exclaimed, 'It was magnificent,'" said Gerry Landry, manager of the wind tunnel and a 24-year veteran of the test facility.
Landry was a featured speaker at the afternoon ceremony, along with Caltech President Thomas Everhart; Johnson Professor of Aeronautics and current Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory (GALCIT) director Hans Hornung; and von Kármán Professor of Aeronautics and former GALCIT director Hans Liepmann. Also in attendance was Dr. W. Bailey Oswald, the sole surviving member of Caltech's first aeronautics Ph.D. class of 1932.
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-fuselage P-38 Lightning, the B-25 Mitchell, and the night fighter P-61 Black Widow.
The campus flyover featured a B-25 owned by Mike Pupich and operated by the Heritage of Eagles Museum; a C-46 Commando transport/cargo plane, a Navy SNJ version of the AT-6 Texan, and a T-28 trainer. All four planes flew in World War II. So important was the wind tunnel to the war effort that armed guards were posted around the building in which it is housed and 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 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.
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 facility in the same location in Guggenheim Laboratory.