One of my close friends just so happens to be married to an engineer at Boeing Research’s wind tunnel facilities and being the humongous nerd that I am, I couldn’t resist asking to check out his “office” during a recent visit to Seattle. Truth be told, it was an all-around nerdventure (it’s totally a word), given that the main reason for our trip was the Distant Worlds concert at Benaroya Hall that weekend. Adding on a wind tunnel tour and a trip to the nearby Museum of Flight was basically just gravy, and there was indeed quite a bit of gravy on this trip (more on that in a moment).
Most people probably wouldn’t get very excited about a wind tunnel, but the two we toured at Boeing Research are pretty impressive. One is designed to test the ways in which ice forms on aircraft components and features air conditioning systems strong enough to produce 2500 pounds of ice in one day. The other is so powerful that it can generate atmospheric conditions similar to flying a plane at Mach 1.1, which is why it’s named the Transonic Wind Tunnel (TWT). Please forgive the lack of pictures; Boeing is pretty strict when it comes to photography in their research areas. As a consolation, here’s a photo of the live musicians who greeted us at SEA airport when we arrived. One of them was rocking a strange combination of flight attendant and private schoolgirl drag:
First, lets talk about the TWT. It’s freaking huge! We toured the exterior of the interior sections (a private company had rented the tunnel for testing when we were there so nobody was allowed inside the tunnel proper), including the underbelly and the power conversion & generation area. This beast requires its own private 40 megaWatt electrical substation to spin up (about the same amount of power used by 32,000 homes), and it dumps an enormous amount of power back into the grid when it spins down thanks to an array of digital power transformers that make up the back-end of the tunnel’s massive fan. Though they look like an unassuming clutch of server cabinets, the hardware inside makes it possible to convert energy coming from either direction into different currents and voltages, based on what the fan happens to be doing at any given time.
All this power spins a girthy 18-inch diameter drive shaft and the array of detachable fan blades connected to it at an insane RPM count. The result is one seriously breezy testing environment, and into it go scale models of Boeing flight craft built with meticulous precision in the adjacent fabrication warehouse. Each is fitted with hundreds or even thousands of sensors to relay test data from various spots on the craft’s surface. Once mounted in the tunnel, the fun begins as the models are subjected to the fiercest winds you’ll find on the west coast. If Tim Taylor wanted to build a wind tunnel, I’m pretty sure it’d be modeled after this monster.
Moving on to the amazing ice machine: its official name is the Boeing Research Aerodynamic Icing Tunnel (BRAIT) and it’s one of only seven that exist in the world. Originally built in 1991 to help with the testing of the 777, it dramatically reduces the cost of certification for flight since pilots no longer have to spend 60+ hours flying new planes through naturally-occuring horrible weather. With the BRAIT, very specific weather conditions can be simulated in order to safely determine how aircraft components will react with the environment. Even though it’s only four feet wide at the testing section, Boeing’s happens to be the third-largest tunnel of its kind and can chill the air down to -22ºF even as it moves around at speeds of nearly 300mph. As if that isn’t impressive enough on its own, an array of ultra-fine nozzles at one end of the tunnel allows Boeing engineers to spray ultra-purified water into the air and generate different types of clouds depending on which nozzles are active.
The BRAIT also has a lot of stairs. The tunnel’s refrigeration and water purification sit above the testing tunnel and air compression operations are housed below. Reaching the different sections is a bit like going through a theme park ride queue. But boy, was it worth it. The air compression system area in particular bore an all-too-similar resemblance to the fictional Aperture Laboratories of Portal Fame. Side note: Why has nobody made THAT game property into a movie yet? Large pipes snaked all over the area, allowing the massive radial compressors to serve the BRAIT above as well as a few other testing facilities on the campus. There was a shielded control center that looked like it had been dropped straight out of a sixties sci-fi movie set. Apparently some of the control systems in this particular part of the facility are so old and so unique that there simply aren’t replacement parts to be found. There was hardly a digital display anywhere in sight and it was downright gorgeous. I thought I was getting hot under the collar from being around all this beautiful machinery but then my friend mentioned how much heat the air compressors generated when they were running at full power and I realized it actually was much warmer in there.
My grandfather was a machinist and the scent of a room filled with large metal pipes and the tools to maintain them had the sensory effect of riding a TARDIS back to his shop behind the house my mom grew up in. The retro look of the place was just icing on the cake. My eyes and my grin just kept growing wider as my friend showed off some pretty impressive engineering trickery he had developed in order to increase the air compression abilities of the tunnel. All this power was also making me hungry, so we all marched out of this engineering Disneyland and drove to Katsu Burger.
NOTE: I’d like to say at this point that I think it was patently unfair of my husband to deliberately keep me from going into the Boeing gift shop. But that’s all I’ll say on the matter.
Katsu Burger is not just a fantastically delicious and reasonably priced place to eat, it’s also full of great Japanese pop art and anime. I want one of these in Los Angeles so freaking bad. Unfortunately for me, they’re only in Bellevue, Seattle & Lynwood. Stop here on your way into downtown from the airport. You won’t regret it.
From here we wandered over to the nearby Museum of Flight, which is basically Disney World for anyone who thinks the Boeing wind tunnels are Disneyland. It was here that I finally set foot on the Concorde. I won’t bore you with the details other than to say that after getting my fill of big, sexy flying tubes of steel, we were hungry again. Our Seattle friends had teased us with the promise of some serious poutine action, so we were off to the Angry Beaver to try out their poutine flight. For those of you unfamiliar with poutine, it’s basically french fries smothered in gravy and cheese. Eleven bucks gets you a huge pile of fries, plus three different gravies. We opted for curry, mushroom and beef and I can safely say it was some of the best Canadian Nachos I have ever put into my mouth. I am not, however, sharing a photo of this culinary masterpiece because it looks ungainly when captured on “film.” Oh, did I mention they also have a pretty great beer selection, including 12 rotating varieties on tap? Because they do. And let’s not forget that the place is called The Angry Beaver.
Tragically, the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Company next door was closed due to an emergency. Something about tribbles. I was crushed.
More to come in a follow-up post, where I wax poetic about the amazing hospitality of the folks at the Hyatt Olive8.