Transforming A 1920s Historic Aviation Research Landmark Into A State-of-the-Art Aviation Laboratory

Published in Midwest Flyer – August/September 2019 issue

Building 19 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (WPAFB), located just east of Dayton, Ohio, has a rich history, which includes Orville Wright’s participation in the commissioning of one of the world’s most powerful and efficient wind tunnels. The decision to rehabilitate Building 19 – a historic landmark – into a new Systems Integration Laboratory, showed both the commitment to Wright-Patt’s legacy in aviation research, as well as the leadership to prepare for future innovations. The project is an excellent example of the juxtaposition of an exterior historic rehabilitation with state-of-the-art interior modeling and simulation technology.

The rehabilitation of Building 19 maintains its 1929 character and preserves one of the most historically significant buildings at WPAFB. When first built in 1927, Building 19 was a temporary structure. It was not until two years later, in 1929, that the wind tunnel was installed and funds became available to complete the building as we know it today. The tunnel was 96 feet long with the largest diameter being 12 feet to accommodate a test model with wing spans up to 40 inches. When the tunnel was commissioned, it was considered the most efficient in the world. It was well known through the late 1950s for its aerodynamic testing and contributions to research in the development of nearly every major aircraft by the U.S. Air Force. The wind tunnel remains a remarkable example of woodworking craftsmanship and was considered advanced for its time because of its power, speed range, and combined features which were not available in any other single facility.

The decision to transform Building 19 into the new Systems Integration Laboratory was driven by the need for new capabilities to evaluate technology of critical systems and components under flight conditions. For the project to be successful, it would require preservation and reuse of the historic building, archival preservation; disassembly, removal and storage of the historic wind tunnel; and development of a new state-of-the-art laboratory facility to support the Integrated Vehicle Energy Technology (INVENT) program.

Numerous challenges faced “emersion DESIGN” and the rest of the renovation team. First, they needed to plan for flexibility and growth. A key feature of the flexibility/contingency planning was to ensure that the future integration and application of a research air system was possible. Also, as a candidate for the United States National Register of Historic Places, the building renovation required coordination with the Ohio State Historic Preservation Office to ensure the building exterior was maintained and improved to retain its historic character. The wind tunnel archival presentation was also a significant undertaking. The entire 96-ft. wind tunnel would require deconstruction, removal, archiving, palletizing and transportation of components to an off-site storage facility. The age, condition, deficiencies and poor soil conditions of the historic building – as well as the need to comply with current seismic code – required a new structural system be constructed within the existing building shell.

Functional needs for the INVENT program were also demanding. “The INVENT program required many specialized services and utilities unique to its research needs,” said Steve Kimball, principal and leader of the Science & Technology practice at emersion DESIGN. “The research and test equipment required extraordinary compressed and heated air utility service of a specific volume, mass, temperature and pressure.”

To accommodate the INVENT program, more floor area was needed than was available. The high structural bays of the building allowed program areas to be stacked, which proved beneficial. On the first floor, high-bay laboratories, fabrication rooms and shops house most of the research that is performed in the building. Research air systems, electrical bus duct distribution, process water and shop air are provided throughout the building. Actuation stands – where vibration is a controlling factor – are operated by hydraulic pumps located nearby. Within the high-bay laboratories, there is an overhead system to provide flexibility while moving research equipment. Other notable areas include drivestand rooms, an electrical fabrication shop, a mezzanine level control room, and a model and simulation room for the development of software (for creating and modeling and running real time simulations). Laboratory space is located on the second level at the northern end of the building in order to take advantage of the natural daylighting provided by the north face’s high and low window bands. This newly renovated facility now houses the technology required to increase the performance of military aircraft – which ultimately enhances combat performance.

The success of the newly renovated 19,000 square foot state-of-the-art laboratory capitalizes on the sustainability of renovation over new construction, demonstrates a commitment to historic building rehabilitation, and the commitment to the archival retention of a significant historical artifact.

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