When a new NATO task group was being formed to advance computational models of turbulent flows, William Devenport and Virginia Tech jumped at the chance to lead the effort.

The applied vehicle technology task group, formed in 2022, unites researchers and experts from NATO nations including the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Canada, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Turkey. Leveraging each country’s unique expertise, the collaborators established select facilities around the globe as Common Research Wind Tunnels. These facilities are comprehensively documented and improved to enhance their characteristics as test cases for computational fluid dynamic (CFD) models.

Virginia Tech’s Stability Wind Tunnel is among the four global wind tunnel facilities chosen in the U.S., France, and Germany.

“Being selected as a Common Research Wind Tunnel positions us as a model facility and enhances Virginia Tech’s visibility across the globe,” said William Devenport, Alumni Distinguished Professor and director of the Stability Wind Tunnel. “We are very glad to be leading the effort and for the opportunity to collaborate with pioneers and leaders in the field to help determine the future of CFD.” 

Experimental vs. computational 

Wind tunnels test everything from aircraft, drones, marine vehicles, and wind turbine blades. Scale models, or components such as a wing, blade, or rotor, are placed in the facility’s test section to measure the flow, acoustics, and forces such as lift and drag. 

Data from these experiments helps advance the science of aerodynamics and aeroacoustics and assess the accuracy of computational models for designing new vehicles. For the assessment to be precise, the CFD must include the walls and features of the wind tunnel as well as the flow around the model. Determining what details of the wind tunnel to include and how they are best modeled are the open questions that the NATO task group aims to resolve.

“The ultimate goal is to improve both accuracy and consistency of the CFD predictions,” said Devenport, who is serving as the U.S. co-chair of the NATO task group. “We will do this by developing best practices for wind tunnel configurations and documentation and for those attempting to validate computational models using the wind tunnel data. Then these best practices could be applied at other facilities, in particular those national scale facilities that focus on vehicle development and model vehicle testing.” 

The four facilities chosen for the NATO research project include a variety of flow regimes:

  • Virginia Tech’s Stability Wind Tunnel, a low-speed facility
  • The ONERA S3Ch Tunnel in Meudon, France, a transonic facility
  • The DNW-TWG Tunnel in Göttingen, Germany, a transonic/supersonic facility
  • The U.S. Navy’s William B. Morgan Large Cavitation Channel, Memphis, Tennessee, anational scale water tunnel

Virginia Tech faculty participating in the research include Devenport, Professor Chris Roy, Research Associate Professor Aurelien Borgoltz, and Research Assistant Professor Nanyaporn Intaratep, all from the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering. 


Mate Szoke (right) gives an overview of the Stability Wind Tunnel to undergradautes in the Experimental Methods course.
In the Experimental Methods course, the last experiment of the semester takes place in the Stability Wind Tunnel. This spring, undergraduates participated in the first phase of the characterization of the facility, measuring inflow and documenting the boundary layers on all four walls throughout the length of the test section. Photo by Jama Green for Virginia Tech.

Educational pipeline

In addition to prioritizing continual refinement of the Stability Wind Tunnel, Devenport and other faculty members strive to enhance experiential learning opportunities for engineering students. The facility, which was originally built at the NACA Langley Aeronautical Laboratory in 1940 and acquired by Virginia Tech in 1958, is well suited for research on aeroacoustics, aerodynamics, and fluid structure interaction, and extensive measures have been taken to tie ongoing research to the classroom.

Through courses in the aerospace and ocean engineering and mechanical engineering departments, about 800 undergraduates come through the Stability Wind Tunnel each year to gain hands-on experience in large scale research experiments and directly contribute to ongoing research efforts. Likewise, master’s and Ph.D. candidates planning and executing high-level research experimentation gain essential skills in the operation of optical diagnostic techniques and the associated data processing. 

Educational training of the future workforce is of critical interest to the U.S. Navy. Over the next five years, the Office of Naval Research is funding personnel and instrumentation for the Stability Wind Tunnel portion of the Common Research Wind Tunnel effort. A major goal of that support is to engage undergraduate students.

“From the student perspective, simply seeing the international relevance and impact in the work that they are doing is of tremendous value,” said Devenport. “Being the only educational institution involved in the Common Research Wind Tunnel project, our students’ work and the data they are generating will have a direct impact on our international partners.”

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