An Endangered, Decaying Chink of History: Fate of NASA Langley Wind Tunnel Up in the Air (Daily Press)

An Endangered, Decaying Chink of History:
Fate of NASA Langley Wind Tunnel Up in the Air

Ivy now snakes up the crumbling concrete walls of the wind tunnel where engineers once grappled with aviation's most complicated problems. Once at the cutting edge of American technology, now it has the look of an abandoned B-movie set.

Old wooden pallets are scattered among knee-high weeds in this remote corner of Langley Air Force Base, overlooking the Southwest Branch of the Back River. It almost seems that no one has visited here since 1961 - the year the NASA Langley Research Center deactivated its "8-Foot High-Speed Wind Tunnel."

It belongs to NASA but is on Air Force property.

If you could see this site - the Air Force doesn't allow casual sightseers - you might not recognize it as a National Historic Landmark. But it was designated such in 1985 - one of five at NASA Langley. Now, officials want to demolish it.

The other historic landmarks at NASA are two other wind tunnels, a place where astronauts practiced landing on the moon, and a place where Gemini and Apollo astronauts practiced docking.

"This site possesses national significance in commemorating the history of the United States of America," reads the plaque outside the 8-foot High- Speed Wind Tunnel.

"The state of disrepair of the concrete enclosure has been deemed a safety hazard," said Rodney Harris, a master planner and preservation officer at NASA.

The estimated cost to repair the damage: $1 million.

That's a chunk of change NASA doesn't have.

"Today, the budget for even ongoing aeronautic research is being slashed," Harris said.

No one disputes that world-changing history was made here.

This is where engineers worked out fixes to the severe stability problems that World War II fighter planes had during high-speed dives.

Later, engineers conquered problems related to flying faster than sound. Chuck Yeager owes some part of his achievement to the work done in this wind tunnel.

When supersonic flight became a military necessity, engineers used the tunnel to find ways to make such flight more efficient and reliable.

Official notice of NASA's plans will be published in the next few months. A public hearing might be held. Harris has been collecting comments from the public. Comments will also come from such places as the National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the National Park Service and the state Historic Preservation Office.

The National Park Service maintains the list of National Historic Landmarks.

Jody Cook, a historian with the service, has written about the historical significance of buildings at Langley Air Force Base.

"The whole history is unbelievably significant and remarkable," Cook said. "And it just gets to me that they continue to demolish these buildings that have great historic importance."

It could be two or three years before the wind tunnel is demolished, Harris said.

Cook said NASA must go through a detailed process under the Historic Preservation Act before tearing down a National Historic Landmark. That might include a look at alternatives to tearing down the wind tunnel.

The state Historic Preservation Office or the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation could, conceivably, prevent NASA from tearing down the tunnel, according to Cook. But that's unlikely, she added.

"I think it's terrible," she said of the plan. "It's a property of national significance. I'm not sure NASA Langley has explored all the alternatives there might be to demolition."

John Becker began his work as an aeronautical engineer at the wind tunnel when it first opened, in 1936. It was run then by NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics.

Becker retired from NASA in 1975. When asked about the site's significance, he didn't even know it had been designated a historic landmark.

"I think of it as one of the important tools that was available to us back in that period," Becker said. "It served its purpose. It's now sort of a dead, uninteresting object. It would be of very little interest to the average person."

Steve Corneliussen Jr. is a senior science writer at Jefferson Lab in Newport News. He has written about the importance of NASA Langley wind tunnels to the advancement of aeronautics.

He said he was not opposed to the demolition of this wind tunnel.

He's not in favor of it, either.

He's not sure what to think.

"What I'm advocating is, let's understand what we're doing before we do anything," he said during a tour of the site with NASA officials.

"Will we regret it 50 years from now if this place isn't here?" he asked. "I don't know."