Chambers Takes Audience on a Full-Scale Journey
By: Brian Marcolini
, LARSS intern
In NASA Langley's Reid Conference Center on Tuesday, Joe Chambers carried his audience through the entire history of Langley's Full-Scale Tunnel (FST) from the early days of NACA, to working with NASCAR in the late 1990s and 2000s.
At its completion in 1931, it was the largest wind tunnel in the world. The cathedral-like structure immediately garnered worldwide attention.
Chambers, who started his career at Langley in 1962, was immediately assigned to the tunnel and met Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra on his first day.
That made quite an impression on the young Chambers.
"I called my parents and said 'you won’t believe the job I have, and they're paying me to do this,' " Chambers said during the June Colloquium presentation.
His passion for aeronautics never diminished, nor did his relationship with the FST. Chambers was quickly promoted to lead a research group at the tunnel, and became its director in 1974.
After retirement in 1998, Chambers began efforts to preserve the history of the tunnel. "Cave of the Winds: The Remarkable History of the NASA-Langley Full-Scale Wind Tunnel," was the title of his talk at Langley and it is the title of a new book written by Chambers. NASA is preparing the book for printing later this year.
In the book, Chambers describes a tunnel that made an impact, not only on the United States, but on the outcome of international history in many different ways.
"Probably the tunnel’s biggest legacy was its World War II contributions," Chambers said. "Many of the aircraft that flew in and near the Midway Battle time frame were tested in the facility."
Just about every American military plane was tested at the FST during the war, plus one foreign aircraft. In the midst of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Midway, Chambers unveiled the recent discovery of secret tests at the tunnel that helped change the tide of the war -- tests on a captured Japanese Zero.
The Zero, a war plane that gave U.S. pilots major problems, was much quicker and more agile than its American counterparts. Unknown to the Japanese, one of their prized Zeros crashed during an attack on the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska.
The discovery and quick shipment of the war bird to California, and eventually to Langley in March 1943, was one of the turning points in the war. Tests on the plane revealed flaws in the Zero that helped save many lives.
"Japanese historians regard the capture of that Zero to be as significant as the United States’ victory at the Battle of Midway," Chambers said.
This wouldn't be the only time that the FST would help the U.S. military against a smaller, more agile enemy. During the Vietnam War, an era where the military planes were designed for mostly missile launches rather than dogfights, the U.S. again came across a lighter, faster aircraft made by the former Soviet Union for North Vietnam.
U.S. F-4 fighters were suffering from massive control problems during encounters with the enemy ... problems that lead to the loss of over 100 F-4’s in the earlier parts of the war. Chambers not only worked on the problem, but he illustrated how the FST and engineers at Langley fixed the control flaws.
Not limited to aeronautics, the FST tested everything from a test model of the USS Albacore submarine to assisting with the space program – Project Gemini to the space shuttles.
With a change in research priorities, NASA closed the tunnel and then allowed Old Dominion University (ODU) to take over its operations in 1996.
With ODU, also came some of the tunnel's most unique tests. While doing research of the aerodynamics of its vehicles, more than 50 NASCAR teams came calling, looking for whatever competitive edge they could find. The tunnel then tested replicas of the Wright Flyer for an event called “The Wright Experience,” which celebrated the Centennial of Flight in 2003.
The great 'Cave of the Winds' had contributed much to aeronautics and aerospace research – from biplanes to space planes – but by 2009, the tunnel had run its last test. Demolition was completed in 2011.
Although gone, the tunnel is not forgotten. The Smithsonian will place the drive fan blades and Toledo scales in the Milestones of Flight
exhibit along side the Bell X-1, the X-15 Rocket Plane and SpaceshipOne.
"That is really amazing to me," Chambers said of the Smithsonian including FST artifacts. "It is really the altar of aviation."
And while the tunnel has been gone for more than a year, Chambers still feels the pain of losing an old friend.
"When I drive over there [Eastside of Langley], a tear is shed," he said.
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