The history behind German wind tunnels at AEDC

  • Published
  • By Chris Rumley, AEDC Historian
The story of the German wind tunnels at AEDC begins in July 1944 somewhere in the air over Germany. 

That is when our Air Force bomber pilots first encountered high speed German aircraft flying without the aid of propellers. These jet aircraft were faster than anything in the skies and they tore apart many an allied bomber formation in the summer of 1944.

The German Messerschmitt ME-262 jet aircraft was just one technological breakthrough for Germany during WWII. Two other advanced weapons, the V1 and V2 missiles, appeared almost simultaneously with enemy jets. The German military fired thousands of the missiles across the English Channel at targets near London.

The most feared weapon was the V2 supersonic missile. The V2 arrived at a target without warning, carried a large explosive payload, and was virtually unstoppable. All three weapons were advanced beyond American technology with capabilities that rendered our ground test facilities inadequate. Had Hitler realized the full potential of this weaponry earlier, he could have mass produced them to win the war or sue for peace.  These were the weapons of the future.

     Air Force General Henry "Hap" Arnold was in England in 1944 just after D-Day and saw the first V-1 buzz bombs and the devastation caused by the V2s. Realizing America had fallen behind in missile and jet technology, Hap ordered the confiscation of German weapons. Specifically, he wanted to capture an intact missile and have it reverse engineered in America. The operation was a success and led to America's first cruise missiles and long range rockets based on German technology. 

In addition to capturing wayward missiles, Gen. Arnold sent a small team of scientists into Europe just behind the advancing line of our troops. Their mission, known as the Karman Mission, was to discover German Air Force technologies and locate the research facilities used for their advancement. 

Mild mannered scientists disguised as high ranking military officers made their way into Europe searching for the German secrets. To be sure, the mission included an element of danger. There were armed pockets of resistance one could stumble across, and many German civilians, whose cities had been bombed to rubble, were none too cooperative.

  Dr. Theodore Von Karman, for whom the mission adopted its name, and his close associate Dr. Frank Wattendorf were two of the scientists scouring Europe to capture advanced weapons, research facilities, and German scientists.

Dr. Wattendorf explained what he found, "The Germans kept these facilities very well secreted. One whole installation- a complete, up-to-date aeronautical establishment- had been built in the middle of a forest. The buildings all had trees on top of them so that, from the air, it just looked like a forest."

     In Munich, hidden deep inside the Bavarian Motor Works (BMW) military vehicle plant, the scientists found the world's most advanced jet engine test facility. Here the Germans could test advanced jet propulsion units at simulated altitudes. 

Because America had focused on mass production of existing technologies to win the war, we had not invested in testing facilities that could produce the quantity of air required by jet engines. When Dr. Wattendorf learned that our Military Government in Germany had agreed to surrender the BMW vehicle plant to Russia, he recommended the quick dismantling of the jet engine facility. 

The facility was crated up piece-by-piece and shipped to America before the Russians took any equipment. The crated plant, 42 train car loads, eventually made its way to Tullahoma, Tenn., where it was reused in our own AEDC Engine Test Facility. While many of the parts have been replaced over the years or are just no longer used, some of the original German parts, including two test chambers, are still used.
Another German wind tunnel found at Kochel, Bavaria, was capable of producing wind speeds in excess of Mach 4 and the Allied advance interrupted construction of a Mach 10 hypersonic tunnel at the same location.  The captured tunnels were sent to the U.S. Navy laboratories at White Oak, Maryland, which is now a geographically separated AEDC facility.   The original German tunnels remained in use at White Oak for some time.  The T-1 supersonic tunnel was used for calibrations until 1997.  American engineers used the captured plans from these tunnels to build our Gas Dynamics Facility later renamed the von Karman Facility.  A third 18 x 18 cm supersonic tunnel from Kochel went to White Oak, but was given to the University of Maryland.  Engineers took the basic plan of that tunnel and expanded it to build our 16-foot supersonic tunnel at Arnold AFB. 

In addition to the tunnels, 8 German scientists came to AEDC and 12 more went to the Navy at White Oak. These scientists helped rebuild and operate these facilities. Dr. Wattendorf's suggestion to dismantle and reuse the German facilities to build a new Air Engineering Development Center for the USAF saved millions of dollars and about 10 years of design and planning. 
With the coming cold war and the need for advanced jet aircraft and ICBMs, those 10 years were crucial for America's defense.