The Anatomy of a Wind Tunnel
The design of an efficient aircraft or spacecraft involves the use of the wind tunnel. These tools simulate flight conditions, including Mach number and scale effects, in a controlled environment. Over the late 19th, 20th, and early 21st centuries, wind tunnels evolved greatly, but they all incorporate five basic features, often in radically different forms. The main components are a drive system, a controlled fluid flow, a test section, a model, and instrumentation. The drive system creates a fluid flow that replicates flight conditions in the test section. That flow can move at subsonic (up to Mach 1), transonic (Mach 0.75 to 1.25), supersonic (up to Mach 5), or hypersonic (above Mach 5) speeds. The placement of a scale model of an aircraft or spacecraft in the test section via balances allows the measurement of the physical forces acting upon that model with test instrumentation. The specific characteristics of each of these components vary from tunnel to tunnel and reflect the myriad of needs for this testing technology and the times in which experimenters designed them.
Wind tunnels allow researchers to focus on isolating and gathering data about particular design challenges rooted in the four main systems of aircraft: aerodynamics, control, structures, and propulsion. Wind tunnels measure primarily forces such as lift, drag, and pitching moment, but they also gauge air pressure, flow, density, and temperature. Engineers convert those measurements into aerodynamic data to evaluate performance and design and to verify performance predictions. The data represent design factors such as structural loading and strength, stability and control, the design of wings and other elements, and, most importantly, overall vehicle performance.
Most NACA and NASA wind tunnels are identified by their location, the size of their test section, the speed of the fluid flow, and the main design characteristic. For example, the Langley 0.3-Meter Transonic
Cryogenic Tunnel evaluates scale models in its 0.3-meter test section between speeds of Mach 0.2 to 1.25 in a fluid flow of nitrogen gas. A specific application, 9- by 6-Foot Thermal Structures Tunnel, or the exact nature of the test medium, 8-Foot Transonic Pressure Tunnel, can be other characterizing factors for the name of a wind tunnel.