Into The Wind

What does it feel like to stand in a hurricane? At the University of Maryland, one man braves a brutal tempest inh a tunnel to find out.

October 16, 1999|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Let's say you're one of these people. There's a hurricane bearing down on the southeastern part of the country, ready to tear up the coast like a giant chain saw, and all you can think is: Wouldn't it be great to stand in the full, howling fury of one of those things?!

Oh, sure, you could travel to a low-lying area when the big storm comes ashore and take in the sights: the palm trees bent and groaning from the terrible winds, the gray surf pounding angrily, the beach debris flying through the air and impaling itself in the fleshy underbellies of sun-burned yahoos intent on riding out the storm because they're too stubborn (or stupid) to evacuate inland.

Or you can do this: Drive down U.S. 1 in this gritty college town, past Indigestion Row with its cheap burger joints and sub shops, and make a right onto the red-brick campus of the University of Maryland.

Hang another quick right and you're at the Glenn L. Martin Wind Tunnel, where the conditions for experiencing hurricane-like gales are considerably less severe, and the yahoo count much lower.

In the control room on a recent rainy morning, not long before a real live hurricane named Irene began threatening the coast of Florida, you meet Dr. Robert Ranzenbach, the facility's manager of research and business development.

Ranzenbach is a pleasant man with a neatly trimmed beard, level gaze and direct manner. Which is good, because it allows you to cut to the chase.

"We all know why we're here," you say, jerking your head in the direction of the tunnel. "We want the full hurricane treatment."

"No problem," says Ranzenbach, who gets these requests all the time.

Mainly they come from TV reporters who want to climb into the wind tunnel with their microphones and blow-dried haircuts, their $200 silk ties and Dan Rather-model trenchcoats and show viewers what it feels like to experience hurricane-force winds up close and personal.

You, on the other hand, are carrying a notebook and dressed along the lines of a junior varsity soccer coach: khakis and a $40 windbreaker.

As the wind tunnel is readied for your hurricane simulation, Ranzenbach provides some background on the facility.

In operation since 1949, the tunnel was constructed as part of a gift to the university from Glenn L. Martin, the famous Baltimore aviation pioneer and philanthropist. In its main test section, more than 8 feet tall and 11 feet wide, winds up to 230 mph can be generated by a huge 2,000-horsepower electric motor and propeller blades.

The wind tunnel, a self-supporting enterprise that receives no state funding, lists as its biggest customer the Ford Motor Co., which tests clay models of its vehicles to study drag reduction.

America's Cup sailing yachts have tested their keels and rudders here since 1987, and parts of everything from submarines and Vertical Takeoff and Landing aircraft to sports equipment and buildings have been scrutinized here.

But what generates the most publicity for the wind tunnel by far are hurricanes.

An average of five strike the U.S. coastline every three years. And because these howling screamers tend to cause devastating results as they approach land, the media get all worked up over the delicious story possibilities.

"Every time a hurricane comes through, the phone rings off the hook," Ranzenbach says wearily.

In recent weeks, crews from CNN, "CBS This Morning," CBS' "48 Hours," NBC and MSNBC have made the pilgrimage here.

Ask Ranzenbach if he and his staff enjoy all the limos pulling up to the wind tunnel and the big-name personalities trooping through, and he gives you a look. The kind of look you'd give if the dog just threw up on the carpet.

"No, it's a pain," he says. "We do it because it's good PR for the engineering school. And it calls attention to the university."

Tunnel awaits

In a few minutes, Ranzenbach's assistant, Roxanne Sai, announces that the wind tunnel is ready for testing.

First, you're told to empty your pockets, because flying coins, pens or combs could nick and damage the tunnel -- or you. Then another Ranzenbach assistant, Les Yeah, solemnly hands you a pair of protective goggles and straps you into a harness that looks like something you'd use to jump out of a Cessna at 3,000 feet.

The harness, they say, will be anchored securely to two bolts in the tunnel floor. At least that's the plan. You're afraid to think what would happen if it came loose. You'd probably shoot across the room and end up stapled to the far wall. When you ask Ranzenbach, as delicately as possible, if there have ever been any, um, mishaps in the tunnel, he shakes his head.

There was this one female reporter, whom he gallantly declines to name, who had her blouse fly open when the wind ripped off the buttons. "If that makes it into the [station's] Christmas tape," she screamed at her cameraman, "you're a dead man!"

Aside from that, "We've never had any dramatically bad thing happen," he says dryly. "If we do, that'll be the last time we do this."

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