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A Brief History of wind tunnels, and the Vertical Wind Tunnel Corporation L-1 design.

By Chris Landon

The first wind tunnel was built in 1871 by Frank H. Winham and was a small horizontal open circuit unit, whose purpose was to produce a smooth consistent airflow through a test area. The Wright brothers built their first wind tunnel in 1901. Objects of various shapes were placed in the test area, and the forces on these objects were measured. This led to an understanding of lift and drag. The first vertical wind tunnel design came in the 1920's. It was an annular return type, designed to save space. By the 1930's vertical designs were built for spin testing airplane models, and later for parachute testing. Construction of the first vertical wind tunnel with enough airspeed for human flight began in March 1943 at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. It cost of $750,000 and began operation in May 1944. This tunnel is powered by a 1000 horsepower electric motor, which turns a sixteen foot diameter, four bladed fan at up to 875 revolutions per minute. This tunnel features a flight area which is twelve feet wide. Like the vertical tunnels which were built before it, this tunnel was not built for body flight, but rather for spin testing model aircraft, and testing small parachutes.
In 1964,
Jack Tiffany was working with Pioneer Parachute Company testing parachute clusters for the Apollo program. Jack, a skydiver, decided to give it a try. He donned his balloon suit and became the first person to fly in a VWT. In the early 1970's the Army's precision free fall demonstration team, The Golden Knights, started using the Wright tunnel regularly. This tunnel was also used for training Army HALO jumpers. A patent was filed in 1981 by Jean St-Germain of St. Simon, Canada, describes a "levitationarium for air flotation of humans". St. Germain was the first to build a VWT specifically for human flight.
In 1984 I started body flying. At that time there were only three VWT's available to the public. Soon I was doing demonstration flying, training instructors, controlling, and instructing. In 1986 I visited another VWT and found that the flight quality of different VWT's can vary considerably. In 1987 I flew at the Wright tunnel for the first time. This is when I realized how much better a VWT can be. The Wright tunnel is very smooth and consistent, with a nearly flat airspeed profile from edge to edge. The flight area of this VWT is huge compared with VWT's available to the public, and is much easier to fly in.

When I visited new VWT's I found there was little improvement in design. I came to realize that existing VWT's were not adequate to allow body flying to go to the next level, or satisfy the needs of skydivers, or body fliers over 170 pounds. A better VWT design was needed. I had been a pilot for many years and had studied aerodynamics. I decided to design my own VWT. My goal was to produce a VWT that is as wide, smooth, and consistent as the Wright VWT, but with at least a 20% higher airspeed. It had to be as simple and inexpensive to build as possible, and it had to be reliable. I spent quite a bit of time researching before coming up with a design. Then in 1989 Jack Tiffany introduced me to Harold Larsen (The Professor). In our first meeting I reviewed what I had come up with thus far, and why, and what I was trying to achieve. He came back with the basic invention that is the L-1 design. The L-1, as it has come to be known, is named in honor of Harold Larsen. During the next three years he analyzed and refined the design. Plans were drawn, and many details were worked out. During this time I learned quite a bit about aerodynamics and physics through my association with The Professor. This knowledge and the design are the foundation of Vertical Wind Tunnel Corporation. Next, a precision model was built and tested under the supervision of The Professor. At this time I took on a structural engineer who has worked with General Electric building working prototypes of turbofan engines. Through his association with the professor he has gained an advanced knowledge of aerodynamics, and become intimately familiar with the L-1 design.
The model has been thoroughly tested in different configurations, and remains active in case more questions arise.
In 1998 funds were secured to build a full size L-1. A huge amount of additional engineering was done to ready the design for full scale production. This first tunnel became operational December 11, 2003. It has met and in some ways exceeded our expectations.
In August of 2004 we completed our first sale to a buyer in Houston, Texas.

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