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Wind Tunnels to Design New Airplanes

NASA : 19 April, 2007  (New Product)
NASA-developed wind tunnel technology is being used by the aviation industry to perfect new airplane designs throughout the entire development process.
The Boeing Company, Seattle, is one manufacturer purchasing wind tunnel time in the U.S. National Transonic Facility at NASA's Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va., to test new aviation concepts, before applying them in flight.

Boeing is evaluating high-lift system designs for its new 787 jet aircraft. High-lift systems include the flaps and slats used to increase the lift performance of the wing, allowing the airplane to take off and land safely and efficiently.

'Unlike conventional wind tunnels, the National Transonic Facility can duplicate the aerodynamics of the flight environment, even with small scale models,' said facility chief aerodynamicist Rich Wahls. 'That allows the aircraft manufacturers to produce better performing airplanes with less risk.'

To test its new high-lift concepts, Boeing developers designed new 787-style trailing edge flaps and fit them to an existing 5.2 percent scale 777 semi-span model. The stainless steel model, which looks like one-half of an airplane cut down the middle from nose to tail, is mounted on the sidewall of the wind tunnel.

Even small improvements in performance of a high-lift system can significantly improve the take-off field length, weight carrying capability, and range of a transport aircraft. The improvements can also help reduce aircraft noise. But making improvements is not easy, because of the complex airflow issues encountered when flaps and slats are extended from a wing.

The National Transonic Facility is a unique wind tunnel developed by NASA that uses super cold nitrogen gas at high pressure to duplicate true flight aerodynamics. It can accommodate models as small as one-fiftieth the size of the actual aircraft. Unlike conventional wind tunnels, this facility can adjust the characteristics of the airflow to match the size of the model. Results help engineers determine how new designs will work on real planes in flight.

'In the past, engineers have come to the National Transonic Facility to further understand and solve problems with systems that have already been developed,' Wahls said. 'Now we're also seeing this test capability being used during the Aircraft design phase.'

Boeing has purchased additional time in the facility during February to evaluate the final 787 high-lift configuration.
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