Defying predictions, wind tunnels find new customers in autos, athletics — even fast food

Wind tunnels were supposed to be put out of work by now.

In 1947, when the Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corp. opened its wind tunnel alongside the San Diego Airport, such facilities were really the only way to verify whether a proposed aircraft design would behave as expected.

Scale models of a complete aircraft or its parts were placed inside to understand how air moved around them and measure aspects such as lift and drag.

The San Diego wind tunnel was used to test the aerodynamics of every Boeing jetliner, from the 707 to the 787, various fighter jets and the Space Shuttle.

As computational fluid dynamics evolved in the 1980s, it was assumed most performance predictions could be done cheaper and more precisely by a computer.

But against all odds, wind tunnels have hung around — and a few new ones are being built.

It turns out that while computer modeling keeps improving, it still has some “unseen corners,” said Dave Massey, the San Diego wind tunnel’s general manager.

“Almost all the engineers want a confirmation,” he said. “We’re there to verify it in real conditions.”

But to survive, the tunnels still needed to find new customers to replace consolidating aerospace companies.

That includes high-performance athletes seeking ways to cut down on drag. Even such random objects as solar panel racks get tested for wind resistance, or the adhesive for a large soft drink cup a fast-food chain wanted to attach to its restaurant windows.

While some wind tunnels have closed, there were at least 89 facilities in the U.S. still used for aeronautical testing in 2008, according to the most recent survey done by NASA.

That includes the world’s largest tunnel, located at NASA’s Ames Research Center near Mountain View, Calif., and Northrop Grumman Corp.’s facility in Hawthorne.

Automakers have embraced wind tunnel testing in their obsession over…

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