Welcome to the home of the most powerful aircraft wind tunnel in the world. We are at Modane in the French Alps, 1,100 m. (3,600 ft.) above sea level, where, since the 50’s, the French National aerospace research centre (Onera) has had an exceptional test centre. In this steel tunnel 400 m. (1,300 ft.) long and 24 m. (79 ft.) in diameter, two giant fans, 14 m. (46 ft.) in diameter, produce transonic winds of speeds up to Mach 1 (1,200 km/h or 740 mph), enabling aircraft manufacturers to conduct aerodynamic tests on their development aircraft in order to optimize their design, and explore their limits.
Patrick Wagner, Director of GMT (Large Technical Projects) - ONERA : "Aircraft manufacturers come to the wind tunnel with a number of models incorporating diverse and varied elements, including wing shapes, asking us to tell them what the best shape is, the most effective, the best configuration, or for example the one that provides the least amount of drag.’’
Thanks to its extraordinary dimensions, the Modane wind tunnel can test large size models such as this nearly 4 m. (13 ft.) wingspan B777, and obtain results very close to those of the real aircraft, once airborne.
Onera has seen legendary aircraft such as the Caravelle, Concorde, Mirage, and more recently the Falcon 7X and A380 here, several years before their being put into production. Each programme coming here takes between three and seven years to come to fruition, costing anything from 10 to 30 million Euros.
But with the development of digital simulation, are these wind tunnels doomed to disappear?
Bruno Sainjon, Chief Executive Officer - ONERA: "Simulation cannot do everything, it's a plus, a contribution. But we know very well that the scientific phenomena involved are so fine and important that we must re-calibrate them at different stages with experiments. And this is especially true if we continue developing major technological breakthroughs."
But in order to stay at the forefront in this area, Onera today is demanding a helping hand from the state to the tune of 218 million euros.