The Dichotomy of Flight

This week I was lucky enough to visit a fascinating art project in a unique location which is generally hidden from public view, in fact it is such a well kept secret that it has been out of public sight for 30 years!  Where is it?  The Wind Tunnels at Farnborough Airport.

turbine hall

Main turbine hall

The Wind Tunnel Project was the culmination of 18 months work by Artliner founder Tatiana Ojjeh who first came across these amazing buildings while working on another art exhibition at the airport.  3 artists (Thor MacIntyre-Burnie, James Bridle and Arnold Chan) plus students from the Royal College of Art all curated by Salma Tuqan have created a fascinating and thoughtful (I should say “thought provoking”, but I hate that expression with a passion, it is over-used and often meaningless) tour through and around the abandoned buildings.

The journey starts in the main tunnel building with a fascinating museum-like display of objects and artefacts connected to or found at the site.  Once these have been studied, and they are completely absorbing, the visitor is asked to remove their shoes and wear some soft foam slippers to move into the main turbine hall.

big tunnel

the main turbine

The first thing that strikes you as you enter is how vast , cathedral-like the building is, and also how silent.  Actually it isn’t silent at all because playing just audibly is a sound installation by Thor MacIntyre-Burnie inspired by the particular mindset of the inter-war years, one of optimism but also of fear and trepidation.  Above the slightly disembodied music, is a symphony of bird song, adding a feeling of peace and tranquility.  To one side of the actual turbine is a side corridor which is the return air-flow chamber.  In this long dark space with soft ridged walls is a light installation by Arnold Chan which throws deep shadows emanating from small brightly lit areas.

return tunnel

light installation in air flow return chamber

Moving back into the main turbine hall you pass by the actual turbine, a monsterous propellor with vast wooden blades behind a mesh screen.  It is completely awe-inspiring and I can only imagine how much power it produced when it was running.


The main wind turbine

After sitting for a while to contemplate and absorb the atmosphere of this incredible space, the visitor returns to the “museum” to replace their shoes and then walks across the road into a another building which houses a much smaller and also much older wind turbine.  Built in 1917, this smaller machine is made from of all things, wood!  Before entering the tunnel chamber, the visitor is given a small pot of ‘popping candy’ and asked to stand with their back against a deep padded foam wall in silence, to place the candy in the mouth and then listen to the popping as it bounces around between the ears, the sound amplified by the foam walls somehow.

tunnel 2

section of the wooden wind tunnel

Moving through a doorway into the turbine room the visitor is faced with a machine that looks more like a set from science-fiction film.  This room is in the same state as it was when it was abandoned some 30 years ago.  On the walls are typewritten notices detailing working procedures and dated 1981.


working procedures instruction sheet dated 1981

The small office spaces still have the detritus of everyday working on the shelves, an empty valve box, a crudely modelled blu-tack animal, hardened and cracked with age.  Everything covered in dust and grime accumulated over decades.

blu tack dog

abandoned work space

The visitor is invited to look inside the tunnel chamber where a video installation is playing a film of sound waves on a continuous loop, these reminded me of the 1960’s titles to Dr Who!

sound waves

sound waves video

A small tunnel houses a dart-shaped object, missile-like which is lit such that it looks menacing, and full of foreboding – there are heavy overtones of the Cold War here…

stealth 2


small wind tunnel with ‘missile’

Again, there are obvious signs of abandonment.  The atmosphere is silent and slightly menacing, with another sound track playing just above audible level.  The effect is eerie and slightly sinister.  It is almost as if the people who worked there went home on Friday and simply didn’t come back on Monday.



handling mercury

How to handle Mercury

Leaving this interesting and slightly troubling room, you enter another vast hanger-like space which has been set up as a play area for the launching of the paper planes you were given at the beginning.  It is suprising how well these paper darts fly!  In this space is another sound installation of flocking birds which emanates from two huge speakers, travels across the room before hitting a series of boards mounted high on the opposite wall and returning back to the speakers.  The physicality of the sound hitting the boards was incredible.

play room

the play room

This was a fascinating and very interesting art project.  I hesitate to call it an exhibition, because it is really an intervention, making use of and highlighting the past uses of the space.  The final words come from the Curator, Salma Tuqan’s introduction to the exhibition:

“Shrouded in secrecy since their inception, Q121 and R52, two of the earliest aerodynamic testing facilities in the world, reveal themselves to the public.  Their memories, spilling tales and anecdotes of audacious adventure, experimentation invention and destruction.

Entrenched in layers of history, personal stories of generations and the infinite dream of flight, these iconic buildings stand like modernist shrines to aviation.  Their abandoned remains temple like in grandeur simultaneously cast in the future.” 

Find out more at and at


Tannoy speaker

men on line

Warning Notice

jet engine

Warning Notice


About paisleypedlar

Artist, Sewist, sometime Cyclist and Arm Chair Activist
This entry was posted in Expeditions and adventures, Fine Art, memorabilia, Museums and Galleries, Out and about, Quirky things and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Dichotomy of Flight

  1. porolesole says:

    That was amazing. There must be people still alive who worked with those wind tunnels. I visited and used other facilities at RAE Farnborough in my career in Space Research and never dreamed someone would turn the place into an ‘art’ project. There is, or was, a Low Speed Wind Tunnel at Cranfield which contributed enormously to model flying and there is much that we still don’t know about flight. It was a great pity that the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, closed down. We used to make use of the large Thermal Vacuum Chamber to test satellites. Maybe that has gone too.
    If you are interested, there is an exhibition of aviation art at the Mall Galleries, London, starting on Tuesday 22nd July, admission free.

    • We used to live near Cranfield and I believe that the University still has a low speed wind tunnel in operation. I went for a job interview at Cardington many years ago and was given a brief tour of some of the buildings including the wind tunnel there and the hangar which housed the R100 and R101 airships. I think the Cardington wind tunnel is now owned/sponsored by Red Bull.

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