25 January 2019

Fascinating F1 Facts: 57

Just after lunch on Friday, December 15 1944, a US Army Air Force Noorduyn Norseman C-64 took off from the Twinwood Farm aerodrome, near Bedford, a Royal Air Force station that had been handed over to the Eighth Air Force. The Norseman was flown by Flight Officer John Morgan and was en route to AAF Station Villacoublay, to the south of Paris. There were only two passengers: Lt. Col. Norman Baessell, an ooficer serving with the Air Service Command, and a Major Miller, the leader of the 50-piece Army Air Force Band, in the UK to entertain the US troops. Glenn Miller was the most popular musician in the world, with 17 number one records and 59 top 10 hits - all within a four year period. No-one knows what happened to the plane. It crossed the English coastline at Beachy Head at around 2.30 and was never seen again. There have been lots of theories, but the US Army Air Force investigation concluded that it probably suffered engine failure due to the icy conditions and nose-dived into the English Channel.

A few months later RAF Twinwood Farm was decommissioned when the war ended. The concrete runways were broken up and the land returned to farming. But one small part of the air base remained under government control, being earmarked for a new organization called the National Aeronautical Establishment. The land would be used for a number of wind tunnels, linked to nearby RAF Thurleigh, which would become soon one of the most advanced aeronautical research facilities in the world, with a main runway that was extended to 3,200 metres to allow for the biggest planes of the era.  It took several years to complete all the construction work but then in 1955 the facilities were renamed the Royal Aircraft Establishment Bedford. For the next 40 years RAE Bedford important work developing aerospace technology. By 1994, however, the Royal Air Force was being downsized after the end of the Cold War and all test flying at Bedford was transferred to RAF Boscombe Down in Wiltshire, and the airfield decommissioned. The main airfield was sold to developer St Modwen in 1996, which then leased 400 acres of the site to Jonathan Palmer's Motor Sport Vision. This land was developed into Bedford Autodrome, which is now a very successful corporate motorsports venue.

The Twinwood site was put under the management of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) but in 2002 this was split into two units with one, called QintetiQ, for the assets that would be sold off, and the other for facilities the government wanted to retain. Twinwood would be sold. It boasted two supersonic windtunnels of different sizes, a high supersonic tunnel (capable of simulating Mach 5), a low-speed tunnel and a vertical tunnel used to research aircraft spins and stalls. There wasn't much interest in most of it, but Ferrari technical director John Barnard heard about it and was interested in the low-speed tunnel. At the time Ferrari was in the process of building a new wind tunnel at Maranello, designed by the famous architect Renzo Piano, and they wanted to concentrate everything in Italy.

The following year Barnard started working with the Arrows F1 team and recommended that the team do a deal with DERA to use the Bedford wind tunnel. He argued that it was a unique opportunity because wind tunnels tend to have problems with temperature and are difficult to keep cool. Bedford was different because it was from solid concrete. This had been so expensive that the government plan to build a series of identical tunnels had been cancelled on the grounds of cost. Arrows wasn't the only team to hear about the tunnel but Arrows won the day with an exclusive long term rental agreement. The problem was that the team had to remove its equipment when the tunnel was rented out to other non-F1 businesses. This problem was overcome by block-booking the facility for periods of up to three months at a time, which meant that the team could work whatever hours it wanted. In the end, however, the best solution was to lease the facility. And so the Arrows A21, A22 and A23 were all designed using the Bedford wind tunnel. Sadly, the team's financial situation was increasingly difficult and midway through 2002 it collapsed. The wind tunnel lease ended up as an asset in the hands of the receiver.

Jaguar Racing, which had been formed when the Ford Motor Company bought Stewart Grand Prix in 1999, pounced, securing the lease cheaply and then negotiating a new 123-year lease for relatively little cost. Work was required to fit a new rolling road and control room, which involved chipping away some of the concrete. It was a massive job, which took 18 months and £3.5 million, but at the end of it, the team had a state-of-the-art facility. The bad news was that Ford had by then run out of patience and at the end of 2004 sold the team to Red Bull, which took over the design of the Jaguar R6 and called it the Red Bull RB1. This was developed by a team of engineers led by Gunther Steiner, but in November 2005 the team took on McLaren technical director Adrian Newey and Steiner went to the United States to run Red Bull's NASCAR operations. The F1 team switched to Renault engines in 2007 and after properly calibrating the tunnel, began winning races in 2009, collecting 47 victories and four titles before the engine formula changed in 2014. The team still has a reputation for having the most efficient aerodynamics in the sport… thanks to the work of the aero team at Twinwood, and perhaps thanks as well to the facility itself.

While all this was happening, the once derelict Twinwood control tower was restored and converted into a Glenn Miller Museum. The completion of the work in 2002 was marked by a Glenn Miller concert and this led to the creation of the annual Glenn Miller Festival…

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