Blast From the Past—and Into the Future
75 Years After Its Groundbreaking, Revived UMD Wind Tunnel Revs Up
By Maggie Haslam
Photo by Mac Nelson
When the U.S. bobsled team was preparing to blow away the competition at the 2002 Winter Olympics, it bypassed the icy chutes of Lake Placid, N.Y., for an unassuming brick building in College Park, Md.
The team took silver and bronze, thanks in part to the seconds-shaving, streamlined sled design honed at the University of Maryland’s Glenn L. Martin Wind Tunnel, one of just a handful of such facilities on a university campus and among the longest-operating in the United States. Since 1949, the wind tunnel has put hundreds of innovations to the test: from advancements in automobile design and satellite antennas to the study of flying squirrels and ejector seats.
“It’s a pretty astounding machine for something built 75 years ago,” says aerospace engineering Professor Emeritus Jewel Barlow, who has directed the activities at the wind tunnel since 1977. “The engineering is near perfection, even by 2023 standards.”
Funded by aviation pioneer Glenn L. Martin as part of a massive expansion of UMD’s engineering college in the late 1940s, the wind tunnel began as a design test site for the post-WWII aircraft boom. Its proximity and capabilities were also a draw for the U.S. military during a period of rapid technological advancement: Deemed a classified facility for the first 22 years of its life, the wind tunnel saw a variety of secret research activities—from developing ordnance parachutes to testing early cruise missiles—during the height of the Cold War.
While its cloak-and-dagger days are behind it, the wind tunnel continues to be a versatile and important research lab for testing aerodynamic design, fluid mechanics and structural integrity. With the replacement of several original parts completed in the spring, it’s ready to help forge new innovations on the horizon.
“As industry pushes the envelope, Maryland’s wind tunnel is as important as ever,” says Visiting Research Professor Thomas Beutner. “We’ll be doing things in the future that Glenn Martin couldn’t have dreamed of.”
Here’s a glimpse at some of the historic, innovative and wacky research that has blown through UMD’s Wind Tunnel.
Boeing’s Chinook helicopter: Before Boeing had its own wind tunnel on the East Coast, its engineers came to Maryland to test scale models of the twin-rotor copter.
Ford’s revolutionary cars (and one family truckster): The 1973 gas crisis kicked the automotive race for a fuel-efficient car into high gear and sent Ford Motors to the wind tunnel for the development of cutting-edge, aerodynamic designs: among them, the ’86 Taurus (which included a family vacation-friendly wagon version).
Migratory birds: A multiyear project funded by the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center studied the feasibility of migratory bird tracking devices using ... frozen bird carcasses.
Sailboats: The wind tunnel was instrumental in the development of a keel design to help the U.S. reclaim the America’s Cup from Australia in 1987, research that continued until the early 2000s.
Blow-dried: In a tradition born from one TV reporter’s publicity stunt, meteorologists prepping for hurricane season are now invited to practice standing through 70 mph blasts each July.
Maryland Day: A 30 mph “breeze” introduced at the inaugural campuswide open house provides a rush for approximately 400 guests.
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s...: a government-funded development of a human flight suit, complete with a 50-pound, twin-engine jet pack.
Speed skating gear: Under Armour brings in its revolutionary speedskating uniforms for the U.S. Olympic team, where an aerodynamic seam could literally edge out the competition.
In addition to cellular antennas, rotorcraft and drones, the wind tunnel tests just about anything impacted by increasingly volatile weather patterns—including trash cans.
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