Aerodynamic Flight Testing

A Curtiss JN-4 biplane with model wing suspended beneath.

Flight testing models has a long history in aerodynamics. Above you see a Curtiss JN-4 biplane in flight with a model wing suspended below the fuselage. This test was conducted circa 1921 by NASA’s predecessor, NACA. At the time, of course, computational simulations were non-existent, and, although wind tunnels existed, presumably they could not recreate the exact circumstances needed for the test. Available wind tunnels might have lacked the power to reach the speeds engineers wanted, or they could have been too small for the model or had too many disturbances compared to the pristine flight environment. Any or all of these concerns can drive decisions to use flight testing instead of ground tests.

Flight testing in aerodynamics is still used today, albeit sparingly. The second image shows a crew of Texas A&M graduate students (including yours truly) with a swept wing model we were about to test with a Cessna O-2 aircraft. By this point (roughly 10 years ago), we had wind tunnels capable of overlapping the conditions we could achieve in flight, but flight testing still gave us a larger range of conditions than working solely in the wind tunnel. (Image credits: JN-4 – NASA, O-2 – M. Woodruff; via Rainmaker1973; submitted by Marc A.)

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