Hang on to your hat: Scientists at a Cheektowaga research institution are taking the wraps off the world's most powerful wind tunnel.
The wind tunnel, part of the Calspan-University at Buffalo Research Center, or CUBRC, across from the Buffalo Niagara International Airport on Genesee Street, is the latest addition to a three-tunnel complex that researchers said makes the region the nation's leading site for high-speed wind tunnel testing.
And high speeds they are. The tunnels can simulate the conditions jet aircraft, space vessels and missiles encounter when they reach speeds from three to 30 times the speed of sound -- a range of about 2,284 miles per hour to speeds upwards of 25,000 mph.
"This is the world's best facility from Mach 3 to Mach 30," said Michael Holden, CUBRC's vice president for hypersonics. "There are no other facilities that can replicate that capability."
That makes the CUBRC facility a magnet for highly-trained researchers and engineers in the field of hypersonics and a site that brings upwards of $10 million in testing work to the region from the U.S. military and NASA.
"This will become the national center for hypersonic testing," said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, at Thursday's grand opening of the facility's fourth wind tunnel. "Scientific research is a very important component to the Western New York economy."
CUBRC's growth has been strong, going from five workers in 2000 to about 100 in the Buffalo Niagara region today, with another 20 in the Washington, D.C., area and elsewhere, said Tom McMahon, the non-profit research and development company's president and chief executive officer. Roughly half of CUBRC's employees have master's degrees or above.
"That's the kind of growth, and these are the kind of jobs we need," McMahon said.
The company's revenues have been growing at a compounded annual rate of 22 percent and now stand at $36 million for all of its operations, which include medical biotechnology, chemical and biological defense, and sophisticated information analysis work.
The first of the three wind tunnels that CUBRC operates opened more than a decade ago, with a second added in the late 1990s, McMahon said. The tunnels are used to do ground tests that can duplicate the conditions that missiles, jet planes and even space vehicles encounter at varying altitudes and supersonic speeds.
That type of testing is much cheaper than actual flight tests, McMahon said. A flight test on a missile, for instance, can cost upward of $30 million and result in its destruction. A comparable test in the wind tunnel, using between 400 to 700 different sensors, can produce the same data for about $300,000 without damaging the test vehicle.
NASA, for instance, is using the tunnels for design tests on its Orion space capsule that ultimately will replace the Space Shuttle, Holden said.
CUBRC has received $9 million in federal funding for the wind tunnel complex over several years, and contributed about $1 million of its own funds.
One advantage of the tunnels is their ability to generate a sustained flow of air that allows researchers to obtain test data from not only the initial surge of air but also from the impact of air flows over the test vehicle, said Richard Aubrecht, CUBRC's chairman and Moog Inc.'s vice chairman.
While that burst of air lasts only about three-thousandths of a second, it is long enough to gather an extensive amount of information. "That's a long time," McMahon said.
Operating a wind tunnel at such high speeds also requires vast amounts of energy, said McMahon, standing next to an array of silver-toned pipes, about two feet in diameter, that stretch for more than 100 yards and lead to a larger, sealed chamber where the test vehicle is secured.
"The energy here is enough to launch a Saturn rocket," he said.