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The Royal Aircraft Establishment at Bedford

The RAE Bedford Wind Tunnels

There were four large high-quality research Wind Tunnel facilities at RAE Bedford, with the addition of a low speed tunnel provided specifically to study the spinning characteristics of aircraft.

The 3ft x 3ft Supersonic Wind Tunnel

First run in 1952, this tunnel was driven by two centrifugal compressors with a maximum power input of 12000 hp (equivalent to 9 Megawatts). Speed range was from 300 mph to a Mach number of 2.0 (twice the speed of sound). This included a “transonic” capability, which made it unique in its early days of operation.

Relatively easy to use, the tunnel was operated intensively for thirty years until, surplus to requirements, it was closed in 1983.

Test Section of the 3×3 Tunnel

Saunders Roe SR53 model tested, 1955

The 13ft x 9ft Low Speed Wind Tunnel

The shell of the 246-metre long air circuit of the 13ft x 9ft Wind Tunnel was constructed primarily of reinforced concrete. A 31-foot diameter six-bladed fan driven by a 1500hp (1125Kw) electric motor provided the power source. In terms of its uniformity and steadiness, the airflow in the test section was of such a quality as to make it one of the best low-speed wind tunnels in the world. Its speed range was up to 200mph. A particular feature was that, equipped with a moving belt ‘runway’, it had a capability for assessing the take-off and landing characteristics of air vehicles. It remains fully operational today in the ownership of Red Bull Formula 1 racing.

The 13×9 Wind Tunnel – exterior view

A model in the tunnel

The 8ft x 8ft Supersonic Wind Tunnel

Authority to proceed with the construction of the 8×8 Tunnel was given in 1949, and it achieved its first run in 1955. Capable of operation at subsonic speeds, and at supersonic speeds from a Mach number of 1.3 to 2.5, the air was driven by a 12-foot diameter, ten-stage axial compressor powered from an 80,000hp (60 Megawatts) electrical source.

The advanced aerodynamic capability and quality of the tunnel was such that it was extensively used over a period of forty-six years and served many overseas customers, both military and civil, as well as meeting the British need. Finally surplus to requirements in 2002, its 10,000 tons of steel have hopefully been usefully recycled.

The 8ft x 8ft Wind Tunnel, May 1955

The Main Drive Compressor

The 3ft x 4ft High Supersonic Speed Wind Tunnel

This tunnel can be said to have carried on where the 8ft x 8ft Tunnel left off, in that it covered a Mach number range from 2.5 to 5.0, or five times the speed of sound. The electrical power required to drive the 88,000hp compressors amounted to 66 Megawatts. Following the success of the Supersonic Transport Aircraft (Concorde), consideration was given to the prospects for a Mach 5 transport. The availability of the tunnel was a necessary precursor, and a dedicated team of scientists was set up to pursue a programme of research. The work produced a theoretical methodology for the design of a practical aircraft. The aerodynamic concept of the design was that the aircraft rode on the shockwave generated by its nose geometry and accordingly the name ‘Waverider’ was coined to describe it. Other work undertaken in the tunnel concerned military munitions and the study of propulsion systems for hypersonic vehicles.

The Working Section of the 3ft x 4ft Tunnel

A Waverider Transport Aircraft Design

The Vertical Spinning Wind Tunnel

This wind tunnel was orientated vertically such that the wind blew upwards against the gravitational force on a free falling aircraft model. It allowed the study of both the ways in which an aircraft could enter a spin and the techniques of recovery from it. Designed to accept models with wing-spans of up to seven feet, the circular working section of the tunnel was fifteen feet in diameter. Air was drawn up through the tunnel by an eight-bladed variable pitch fan powered by a 1500hp electric motor and speeds up to 100mph could be achieved. Because the problems associated with spinning were less acute by the time the tunnel was completed, it was not extensively used. However, because it could contain air at a pressure of four atmospheres, it was extensively employed as a storage vessel to provide large amounts of compressed air to other site facilities.

The whole complex which houses the Vertical Spinning Tunnel has been operated for a number of years as a leisure facility by the ‘Bodyflight’ and, later, the ‘Twinwoods Adventure’ companies; the tunnel also being extensively used for skydiving training experience. These organisations have now ceased to trade although the building has been given protected status. 

The High Speed Laboratory complex housing the VST 

A model of a Meteor aircraft flying in the VST, 1957



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