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Bicentennial Project Editor & Writer

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If you build it, planes will fly

Michigan Engineering’s subsonic wind tunnel was not the first of its kind.

But it came on-line in the late 1920s – just as the smaller, less reliable wind tunnels of the strut-and-wire biplane era were giving way to a growing comfort level among designers increasingly dependent on tunnel-based testing to speed the development of the airplane.

And as with so many of the early accomplishments of the fledgling aeronautical engineering program, the Michigan Engineering wind tunnel owed its existence largely to the persistence of just one man – Professor Felix Pawlowski. The department’s first full-time instructor, Pawlowski traveled to Germany in 1924 on a wind tunnel fact-finding mission, returning with a design even more advanced than those he had found on his journey.

The concrete, open-throat dual-return tunnel was poured into the foundation as an integral part of the then-new East Engineering Building. The eight-feet-in-diameter octagonal test section was open to the atmosphere, with a flow velocity of up to 250 miles per hour, and at a maximum airspeed of 80 miles per hour its turbulence and noise levels were likely the highest of any unit built at that time. The main central duct, the fan installation, and the model balance system were completed and installed under the direction of John D. Akerman (‘25E [Ae, E.]).

Clarence “Kelly” Johnson – now considered one of America’s greatest aircraft designers – was among the first to employ this tunnel. As a young and brilliant Michigan Engineering student Johnson identified a stability problem with Lockheed’s Electra aircraft that he immediately remedied when he was later employed by the company.

Johnson earned a Master's Degree in Aeronautical Engineering in 1933. Current department chair Daniel Inman is the Clarence “Kelly” Johnson Professor of Aerospace Engineering.

Subsonic wind tunnel. Courtesy of: Bentley Historical Library.

Aerospace Engineering at U-M is celebrating 100 years, with first courses in aeronautical sciences offered in the fall of 1914. Join us for the celebration Thursday, September 18, to Saturday, September 20.

Article topics: Aerospace Centennial

About Michigan Engineering: The University of Michigan College of Engineering is one of the top engineering schools in the country. Eight academic departments are ranked in the nation's top 10 -- some twice for different programs. Its research budget is one of the largest of any public university. Its faculty and students are making a difference at the frontiers of fields as diverse as nanotechnology, sustainability, healthcare, national security and robotics. They are involved in spacecraft missions across the solar system, and have developed partnerships with automotive industry leaders to transform transportation. Its entrepreneurial culture encourages faculty and students alike to move their innovations beyond the laboratory and into the real world to benefit society. Its alumni base of more than 75,000 spans the globe.