Research spotlight: NIAR's wind tunnel
Three months ago, longtime Texas racer Al Lamb made history by riding his Honda motorcycle a two-way average speed of more than 262 miles per hour -- a new world record.
One of the biggest factors in Lamb’s success was the ability to speed test his motorcycle in the Walter H. Beech Wind Tunnel at Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research.
With the help of NIAR’s controlled laboratory environment, Lamb’s team analyzed details such as drag reduction and rider comfort to enhance the aerodynamic performance of his bike, said John Laffen, director of the Beech Wind Tunnel.
NIAR has been wind tunnel testing motorcycles for various manufacturers for about 20 years. The Beech Wind Tunnel is one of just a handful of major facilities on university campuses in the United States. Other similar facilities only exist at Texas A&M, University of Washington, University of Maryland and MIT.
Another notable racer, Leslie Porterfield, tested at WSU’s wind tunnel in 2010. Through the research done on her motorcycle, she managed to reduce drag by nearly 20 percent.
Porterfield went on to be named the fastest woman in the world on a motorcycle in 2011.
“The significance of the Beech Wind Tunnel to motorcycle race teams, aerospace companies, and everyone that uses our facility is the provision and availability of this research laboratory to provide a controlled, repeatable environment for aerodynamic research,” Laffen said.
How it works
While the Beech Wind Tunnel has proven beneficial to cyclists, it was originally built in 1948 to serve the needs of local aviation research. At the time, it was the largest wind tunnel in the Midwest.
The wind tunnel is a subsonic closed loop tunnel with a test section seven feet high, 10 feet wide and 12 foot long. Air speeds in the test section can reach in excess of 200 miles per hour.
A liquid-filled heat exchanger is used to limit temperature rises in the tunnel and permit full-speed operation all day, seven days a week.
Over the years, it has been used for a variety of tests and purposes including a Junior Olympic skier, Olympic cyclists, model of Kemper Arena roof, curbside dumpster, snowmobiles, motorcycles, antennas, car toppers, early automobiles and hurricane emergency response vehicle models.
The wind tunnel has seen many changes in order to maintain quality and efficiency. The idea to build the tunnel was proposed in 1946 by Walter H. Beech, former president of Beech Aircraft Co., and Dwane L. Wallace, former president of Cessna Aircraft Co., who needed a place to do aeronautical research in Wichita.
The project, directed by Ken Razak, former director of the School of Engineering at the University of Wichita, cost $165,000 and took two years to build.
The most substantial upgrade to the tunnel was finished in January 2005. It cost $6 million and involved a modernization of the tunnel’s test section, control room, fan and balance.
Most recently, the wind tunnel is being used to develop innovative new products, including unmanned aerial systems and the Learjet 85.
“The Beech Wind Tunnel is an important part of Wichita’s aviation history and its future,” said Tracee Friess, NIAR marketing and communication manager. “It was used not only used to develop some of the earliest Beechcraft, Cessna and Learjet aircraft models, but led to the establishment of NIAR itself.”