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ODU Research Team Develops Model of Fighter Aircraft for Testing in Small-Scale Wind Tunnel

Following the decommissioning of the NASA Langley Full-Scale Wind Tunnel (LFST) in 2009, Old Dominion University's aerodynamics researchers were faced with a challenge.

After a decade of testing everything from garden sheds to race cars in the historic LFST, the world's largest university-operated wind tunnel, aerospace engineering faculty and staff in ODU's Batten College of Engineering and Technology needed to be inventive.

So they turned to the 3-foot-by-4-foot wind tunnel in Kaufman Hall for testing as part of a foundational flight dynamic research program. The program, which grew out of a grant from NASA-sponsored work by Drew Landman, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering (MAE), and Brianne Williams, a recent ODU doctoral graduate, involves testing of generic fighter aircraft. These aircraft lines were developed jointly by NATO countries in the 1980s to allow simultaneous wind tunnel experimental studies for comparison purposes. Historically, there had been poor comparisons and, thus, lack of agreement between countries about aerodynamics.

The ODU researchers hope to model how various factors acting simultaneously affect the aerodynamics of such an aircraft - "model" being the operative word in two senses.

Unlike the massive LFST, "Our wind tunnel is now only four feet across," Landman said. "We needed to design a model at small scale to replicate the generic fighter aircraft."

It took the determined efforts of three senior design students, and the manufacturing genius of Batten College machine shop manager Kevin Colvin, to create the ODU Standard Dynamic Wind Tunnel Model (SDM), an 18-inch aluminum replica constructed exactly to scale of that generic fighter line.

Last fall, an undergraduate senior design group consisting of MAE students Andrew Snead, T.J. Wigall and Sean Lawrence started a small-scale SDM design under Landman's direction. By midspring, the group was ready for prototype manufacture.

That's where Colvin came into the picture. It was his job to take the precise computer drawings of the aircraft and replicate it in aluminum, without the multimillion-dollar tools available in extremely high-tech machine shops.

"Well, I like a challenge," Colvin said of his task. "Everything had to be exact."

Not only that, since the model was so small, Colvin had to improvise in his shop, at one point using a piece of machinery as a makeshift Vice-Grip so he could precisely shave down and hollow out the nose cone of the aluminum model.

"I don't really consider myself a metalworker," Colvin said. "It was very satisfying to get the final product to turn out like it did." The entire project took 120 hours in the shop to finish. Landman couldn't be more thrilled.

"Kevin stepped up to the difficult task of machining the aircraft model, which has a complicated curvature to the nose and canopies," Landman said. "He worked with manual machines to build a model that nearly demanded computer-aided machining."

After adding the final touches of the SDM electronic interface, static testing should begin by July.

The word "Dynamic" in SDM refers to characterization of the aircraft in dynamic movement versus steady flight. The model will eventually be oscillated in the wind tunnel to excite its dynamic behavior. Forces are measured by a sensitive transducer located inside the aircraft. This delicate (and expensive) instrument is on loan from NASA Langley Research Center.

The final benefit of a busy 3-by-4 wind tunnel in Kaufman Hall is its use as a teaching tool for ODU aerospace engineering students. "What better hands-on experience for working in a wind tunnel facility?" Landman said.

This article was posted on: June 21, 2011

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