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Kirsten Wind Tunnel History Excerpts From "A History of the University of Washington Department of
Aeronautics and Astronautics 1917-2003" J. Lee,* D.S. Eberhardt, R.E. Breidenthal, and A.P. Bruckner§

Department of Aeronautics & Astronautics
University of Washington, Box 352400
Seattle, WA 98195-2400
Complete history document available in .pdf format

Bill Boeing and the Early Years

In 1903, the year of the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight, a man interested in establishing a timber business on the West Coast moved to Seattle after leaving Yale. Little did he know it at the time, but he was destined to change the face of aviation and the Pacific Northwest forever. March 11, 1910, the first airplane flight in Seattle, at The Meadows. Aircraft is a Curtiss Reims Racer. Pilot is Charles K. Hamilton. His name was William E. Boeing. It is with this man that the story of aeronautics at the University of Washington begins. The first airplane flight in Seattle took place March 11, 1910, when Charles K. Hamilton flew a Curtiss Reims Racer before a large crowd of eager onlookers at what was then called The Meadows, a low-lying strip of land by the Duwamish River, south of downtown. This location is now occupied by Boeing Field, otherwise known as King County Airport. It is not known whether Bill Boeing was present at this event, but what is certain is that he witnessed flying demonstrations in Los Angeles that same year, and was fascinated by what he saw. For the next few years he tried to hitch a ride in an airplane, finally getting his wish on July 4, 1915, in a two-seater float plane on Lake Washington. Boeing caught the flying bug, and soon decided to start producing his own airplanes. Together with Navy Lieutenant Conrad Westervelt and Herb Munter, Boeing designed and built his first airplane, a float plane named the B&W. Shortly thereafter, on July 15, 1916, Boeing incorporated his aircraft manufacturing business as Pacific Aero Products Company, a name he changed to Boeing Airplane Company the following year. In early 1917, Boeing hired two students, Clairmont L. Egtvedt and Philip G. Johnson, from the University of Washington, to be his engineering staff. Though Egtvedt and Johnson were trained in mechanical engineering, and eventually became two of the most influential men in aviation history, their lack of formal background in aeronautics started Boeing thinking.

To build a successful airplane company, Boeing realized that he needed trained aeronautical engineers and a facility to test new airplanes. Boeing devised a way to kill two birds with one stone. He decided to donate a wind tunnel to the University of Washington on the condition that the University develop an aeronautics curriculum.

Design and construction of the new wind tunnel started in 1917, supervised by Assistant Professor John W. Miller, then of the Civil Engineering department. Miller’s interest in flight dated back to befThe Boeing Wind Tunnel at the University of Washington (c. 1918). Clairmont Egtvedt is the third from left. This facility is still in use with a modern 3'x3' wind tunnel inside. ore the Wright brothers’ famous flight. He had started experimenting with gliders in 1895 and developed his first powered airplane in 1909. Miller later became the first person to take an aerial photograph of the University of Washington campus.

The University was desperate for an aeronautics professor, and with the end of World War I, Miller seemed to have lost interest in work at Boeing. To sweeten the deal, Henry Suzzallo, president of the University, apparently promised Miller that, although he would initially be an Assistant Professor, he would be almost immediately promoted to the rank of Associate Professor. For some reason, this promise was not fulfilled, and Miller was not promoted. As a result, Miller again resigned from the University after teaching for only two academic quarters. With Miller’s departure, the University was again left with no one to teach aeronautics. As a result no classes on this topic were taught for the next two years. Little did anybody know at the time, but the man to fill this void was already right under their noses, teaching electrical engineering. As it turned out, this individual was destined to not only fill the aeronautics teaching void, but also to play a key role in the development of aeronautics at the University of Washington for the next 30 years; a man whose legacy continues to be felt even today. His name was Frederick Kurt Kirsten.

Enter Frederick Kirsten

Born in Germany, Kirsten came to America in 1902 aboard an old sailing schooner. At the encouragement of a friend, he began studying electrical engineering at the University of Washington, graduating magna cum laude in 1909. In 1915, he joined the faculty as an Assistant Professor in Electrical Engineering. By 1923 Kirsten had been promoted to full Professor. By nature Kirsten was an inventor. His most famous aeronautics-related invention was that of the cycloidal propeller, which Kirsten spent over 20 years trying to perfect for use on airplanes. At one point, he teamed up with Bill Boeing to further develop cycloidal propellers for both aeronautical and marine applications. Boeing put up $175,000 of his own money to start a company with Kirsten. However, the concept eventually proved to be impractical in aeronautical applications, and the Kirsten-Boeing company failed. It should, however, be noted that cycloidal propellers were viable as a marine propulsion system. Even today, some tugboats are equipped with thKirsten teaching an engineering class at University of Washingtonem.

Outside of his contributions to aeronautics, Kirsten invented everything from lights for airports to World War II air-raid sirens. Although he took out more than 100 patents, many of his non-aeronautical inventions are now forgotten. There is, however, one exception, the “Kirsten Pipe.” Kirsten had been a cigarette smoker and, while visiting his doctor about a persistent cough, he was told to quit smoking cigarettes. Kirsten went home and decided to design a pipe. The heat-absorbing aluminum stem of this pipe delivered a “delightfully cool, clean smoke.” Kirsten demonstrated the pipe to his doctor who is reported to have told Kirsten that he could smoke it on one condition: that he made one for him. Kirsten started a company to manufacture his “perfect pipe,” 10 and over the years made a substantial amount of money selling them. They are still manufactured today, in Seattle, and the company is still in the family.

Kirsten’s personality was one of extreme confidence. According to one of his former students, “Kirsten was a great man, you could just ask him.” An article in The Daily, the University’s newspaper, stated that Kirsten was “about as meek as a General Sherman tank.” Kirsten was extremely proud of his work and very dedicated to it. He could be the best of friends to those who took interest in his work, and a powerful adversary to those who criticized it. It was Kirsten’s personality that gave him the driving force that would enable him to accomplish so much.

The Wind Tunnel Years

Frederick Kirsten with his Cycloidal Aircraft The years from the mid-1930’s until 1960 can best be characterized as the Kirsten Wind Tunnel years. Although the tunnel still is used regularly today, it was this period that established it as a world-class facility. Throughout this era, faculty and students played a key role in operating the wind tunnel. Faculty had played a major part in its construction, and students were hired to operate the tunnel. In some cases, students who worked in the tunnel continued as technical staff and later were hired as faculty.

During the early 1930’s, Fred Kirsten was eager to test his “Cycloplane,” his cycloidal propeller aircraft concept. In 1934 he approached the Graduate Aeronautical Laboratories at the California Institute of Technology (GALCIT) to use their wind tunnel for this purpose. He was quoted a price of $200/day, which was much more than he could afford. At the time, GALCIT had the only wind tunnel of any practical size on the west coast.
So, in 1935, Kirsten proposed a new wind tunnel for the University of Washington. The proposal, “An Aerodynamic Laboratory (Wind Tunnel) on the Campus of the University of Washington, Seattle, Washington,” was for a wind tunnel with an 8x12-foot test section and a maximum speed of 250 mph. When completed, the tunnel would be one of only two capable of such speed. The proposal was for $120,000, of which $54,000 was requested of the Public Works Administration (PWA). The remaining $66,000 would come from other sources: $40,000 from the Washington State Budget Relief Administration, and $26,000 from Boeing, given as a loan against future rentals, at $15/hour.

Construction of the test section of the Kirsten Wind Tunnel

It is interesting to review some of the salient points made in the proposal. One was a barb aimed at GALCIT’s high cost to other universities and its essentially holding a monopoly for testing on the west coast. Another was the training of students and staff for research. The wind tunnel would “allow them to contribute in considerable measure to the advancement of a new engineering field.” Also it was pointed out that the department could not support graduate students because they had to go elsewhere to find facilities to do their research. Finally, it was added that Boeing was sending its work to the east coast and GALCIT at considerable cost. It is interesting to note that the tunnel was envisioned to operate with a student crew, as it still does today.

Construction began in January 1936 and, due to mild weather, progressed rapidly. The tunnel was completed in early autumn of that year. However, it needed much work before it would be ready for serious testing. In order to reduce cost, a decision was made to build a dual return tunnel that used two 500-hp motors rather than a single return with a 1000-hp motor. Much of the design, supervision and construction was done in house; an ingenious electromagnetic balance was designed by Fred Eastman and the 14 wooden fan blades were carved in Guggenheim Hall’s machine shop. Kirsten’s dedication was so great, he even had his son sanding fan blades.

Kirsten (right) standing in the East tunnel circuit during construction, 1936

No formal records appear to exist regarding the work done between the fall of 1936 and early 1939 but a “diary” indicates Boeing tested their model 307 Stratoliner extensively. It appears that a shakedown period was going on concurrently with the Boeing tests. Notes indicate a few startup glitches, such as the loss of one set of seven blades due to a loose spinner. There are some interesting articles that were published in The Daily, the University’s newspaper: one article, dated January 28, 1938 had the headline “Wind Tunnel Air Goes Wrong Way,” and alluded to flow problems due to the merging of the two return streams. Formal test records did not start until March, 1939, when a test on the North American AT-6 “Texan” became the first entry in the official run log.

The University of Washington Aeronautical Laboratory (UWAL), as it has come to be known, began testing furiously once it was open for commercial use. In 1939, a total of 21 tests programs were performed, which included Boeing, Lockheed, Davis, and Consolidated. Two vehicles that occupied the facility for much of the year were the Lockheed Constellation and the Boeing 307 Stratoliner. An interesting historical test from an aerodynamics standpoint was the testing of the Davis wing, used and tested on the Consolidated B-24 that year. The Davis wing was a poorly understood laminar flow wing, which performed exceptionally well in the wind tunnel but not in flight. It was not until years later that it was understood that the peculiar behavior in the operational environment was due to the flow becoming turbulent due to surface irregularities. In 1940 the tunnel had 39 tests, with Boeing, Lockheed, North American, Consolidated, and Grumman all paying visits. The bulk of Boeing’s testing was on the B-29, with some testing of upgrades to the B-17. Lockheed tested the XP-49, which was an upgraded, pressurized version of their P-38. North American brought a model of their P-51 wing in secrecy from southern California. Throughout WWII, the tunnel saw constant action. The only breaks from military testing were in 1941 to perform post-collapse analysis of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and then in 1942 to finally let Kirsten test his Cycloplane. It is somewhat of an irony that it took until 1942 for Kirsten to get testing time after starting with GALCIT in 1934. A big moment for UWAL occurred in July 1941, when, the construction loan from Boeing was paid off. It took only two years of operation to fulfill the commitment of the $26,000 of testing to Boeing.

Boeing B-17 testing at the Kirsten wind tunnel

Military testing dominated the run logs of UWAL throughout the late 1940’s. Some notable tests include the B-47 and the P-85 “Goblin”. Boeing and McDonnell show up extensively in the tunnel logs. In 1948, the wind tunnel was officially named the Kirsten Wind Tunnel, after the man who had worked so hard to get it built. As the 1950’s progressed, Boeing started to become the exclusive customer in the tunnel. Aircraft such as the B-47, B-52, KC-135 and 707 were tested. By the end of the decade it is rare to find an entry in the run logs that is not a Boeing test. A strong relationship between Boeing and the Aeronautics Department blossomed during this period. For the next 30 years, UWAL would host most of Boeing’s low-speed wind tunnel testing. Interestingly, Fred Kirsten, who had been so instrumental in procuring the wind tunnel for the department, was never its Director. Edmund L. Ryder, an instructor, was appointed as the first director, but held the post only briefly. He left the University in 1937 to help start the Boeing Aeronautical School in Oakland, California. Ryder was replaced by Fred Eastman, who had designed the tunnel’s balance. Sometime during the mid- to late 1940’s the directorship of the tunnel transferred to James Dwinnell, a 1939 graduate of the department who had joined the faculty in 1941.

Following the departure of James Dwinnell for Boeing in 1950, the management of UWAL was taken over by Robert G. Joppa, a 1945 graduate of the department. Joppa had stayed on after graduation to work at the wind tunnel, and in 1949 was hired as a part-time instructor and part-time research associate at UWAL. He went on to teach many courses, including flight testing and airplane design, until his retirement in 1988. In 1967 the helm of UWAL was handed to William H. Rae, Jr., (’53, M.S. ’59) who had started as a research instructor in 1956. He continued as head of UWAL until his untimely death in 1993. Rae was co-author with Alan Pope of the 2nd edition of the well-known book Low Speed Wind Tunnel Testing, and was a founding member of the Subsonic Aerodynamic Testing Association (SATA).

Boeing 747 with Space ShuttleBoeing’s continued use of the Kirsten wind tunnel resulted in a decision to help the University modernize it. Gearing up for the 757 and 767 programs, Boeing donated $2,000,000 to upgrade the computer systems. A computer/operations room was added to the roof, using UWAL reserve funds, and two PDP 11/70 computers were purchased to process data.

Also in the early 1990’s, UWAL went through a financial crisis, when Boeing decided to move most of its low-speed wind tunnel testing elsewhere in order to achieve higher Reynolds numbers. This left a large income void at a time when operations were geared towards multiple shift support. Staff members transferred to other departments or chose to retire, as the tunnel’s future was in doubt. During 1993-1994 there were only a handful of tests run by students and a temporary, part-time director. It was decided to close UWAL and a “Last Wind” party was held . However, non-Boeing customers kept requesting tests and the remaining undergraduate wind tunnel Crew members kept operating the facility. Business picked up again as wind tunnel operations adapted to other types of tests besides airliners. The Crew and Staff were able to modernize the data acquisition, processing, and plotting computers greatly improving productivity. Boeing found itself returning to UWAL soon enough too, going from one test in 1994 to six tests in 1996. Boeing remains a top customer of UWAL.

* Graduate Student
† Associate Professor
‡ Professor
§ Professor, Department Chair