About – The Wind Tunnel Project



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Text by FAST and
Julian Harrap Architects


Artliner, an organization which stages art experiences around the world, will this year launch The Wind Tunnel Project. Opening on the 9th June 2014 for six-weeks, the inaugural exhibition will be housed in and around 1917 and 1935 Grade 1 and 2 Listed buildings which will open to the public for the first time in history.

Q121 and R52 are two of the most iconic examples of historic 20th century wind tunnels and flight testing centre technology anywhere in the world. Both buildings were designed to help push the boundaries of British aviation, in the race for dominance of the skies and homeland protection. The Portable Airship Hangar of 1910 was restored in 2006 and has become a centerpiece of the public square. The hangar was originally built to house military airships prior to the First World War.

Q121 and R52 are amongst the last few remaining buildings dating back to the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. They were saved thanks to FAST's (Farnborough Air Science Trust) campaigning and vision. The Wind Tunnel Project is a platform to learn about their stories in a multi sensory experience.


The Wind Tunnel Project takes place in three of the five Farnborough wind tunnels, established in the early 1900’s by the RAE, who were instrumental in wind tunnel research throughout the 20th Century. The Wind Tunnel Project celebrates the history and legacy of these wind tunnels and their central role in the development of aviation.

All that remains of the former Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough – famous worldwide for its excellence in aviation research – is an extraordinary collection of large, enigmatic buildings which give little outward clue to their original function.

The group of surviving buildings is at the center of what has been known since World War One as the Factory Site where, after 1912, the construction of airships was rapidly eclipsed by experimentation in powered flight and the production of early aircraft to meet the urgencies of war.

One building dominates the group: the grey bulk of the 24 foot wind tunnel. It is a landmark of Farnborough with a turret clock (still going) facing the North Gate, where many of the 5000 strong workforce would have entered the Factory Site on foot or bicycle in the Establishment’s heyday.

The outbreak of war placed increased demand on the rapidly developing aircraft industry and its ability to manufacture large numbers of aircraft, and by late 1914 the factory entered a new phase of development and expansion. The Factory’s aircraft designs were produced in their hundreds, the most outstanding being the SE5a fighter, which was widely regarded as the best fighter of the period.

At the end of the war in 1918 the Factory, renamed the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE), entered a new phase as the centre for government aviation research and development. It prospered and expanded for the next 75 years, through World War II and then the Cold War, finally becoming the Defence Research Agency in 1991 and the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency in 1995.

Women Workforce: “The Cody Girls”

During 1916 over 5,000 people worked at the Royal Aircraft Factory, over half of whom were women. The large female workforce, known as ‘Cody’s Girls’ (Mr Cody was the foreman in the fabric shop and the son of Samuel Cody who invented man lifting kites and built and flew Army Aeroplane No. 1), were employed to cut and sew the fabric. Others checked for holes in the fabric or stitching by passing it over a glass topped table with a light positioned beneath it. If holes were detected, they were marked and patched to ensure that the linen would not fail during flight.

After covering the planes, the fabric was ‘doped’ using a foul smelling varnish, which, after three or four applications, made the planes waterproof and taught, but not too brittle. Cellulose Nitrate and Cellulose Acetate had this combination of properties and were widely used. Unfortunately these chemicals were also highly toxic and afflicted the liver, meaning that the ‘Dope Girls’ had to be under constant medical supervision. There were strict rules about not eating in the Dope Room and they drank large quantities of lemonade to counteract the symptoms.

Portable Airship Hanger

Despite the fact that the country’s total of 4 airship sheds had increased to 61 by November 1918, only the examples at Farnborough and at Cardington have survived. These are survivals of importance and great rarity in a European context, particularly in view of the lack of survivals in Germany – which led the field in this technology.

The Wind Tunnels / Q121, R52 and R133

Two new tunnels were built in 1931, one of these (the ‘five foot’ tunnel in R52) being the prototype for Q121, constructed in 1934-5. With the increasing speeds and performance of aircraft another high-speed wind tunnel (R133) was planned from 1937, work for which begun in February 1939 and was completed in November 1942. These remarkable structures are with the protected tunnels at Meudon (Paris, France), Johannistahl (Berlin, Germany) and Langley Field (Virginia, United States) some of the most impressive monuments to twentieth century technology in the world.


From 1918 to 1958, the aerodynamics team was led by the internationally recognised Miss Fanny Bradfield, who became Head of the Small Tunnels Division in 1942. The Small Tunnels (as the tunnels in R52 were known) were used for aero-elasticity experiments, the testing of Mitchell’s Super marine ‘S’ series of high-speed aircraft, for streamlining bomb shapes and their release characteristics and for the first supersonic tests (with high-speed aerofoils) in 1928.


The tunnel was officially opened on April 4th 1935 and the first aircraft to be tested was Gloster Gauntlet fitted with a Bristol Mercury engine. Electric motors of 2000hp produced a maximum airspeed of 115mph.


The high-speed tunnel of 1939-42 (R133) was used during the Second World War to test models relating to modifications to and prototypes of, most notably, the Mustang, Spitfire and Typhoon fighters in addition to Frank Whittle’s Gloster E.28/39, the first jet propelled aircraft to be flown in the UK.

In the immediate post-war years the levels of Research and Development funding increased, and Farnborough became the largest R and D establishment in Europe, developing the ‘hot science’ that underpinned NATO’s attempts to counter the Soviet military threat.

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