An impressive, 10-foot airplane propeller once created powerful gusts inside a world-famous Colorado State University wind research laboratory. That propeller, taken from a rare World War II seaplane, has found its way to an aviation museum in Colorado Springs. The story of how it got there starts with one eagle-eyed passerby.

Now on display at the National Museum of World War II Aviation, the propeller, which came from a Curtiss Electric SC-1 Seahawk plane, was salvaged from a decommissioned wind research tunnel at the CSU Engineering Research Center on the Foothills Campus. Marked as scrap and bound for destruction, the propeller caught the eye of Jack Clark.

Clark, owner of materials testing and measurement company Surface Analytics, has a longtime research relationship with CSU. He has supported science through mechanical engineering faculty Sue James and John Williams, among others.

One day last June, Clark was walking past the old wind tunnel, just down the hall from his CSU office, while a crew from Colorado Iron and Metal was taking it apart. The giant propeller, mounted behind a panel for more than five decades, was now in plain view on the wall. Clark took one look and thought, “That shouldn’t be scrapped.”

Jack Clark with the propeller he salvaged from a decommissioned CSU research tunnel. The propeller is now on display at a museum in Colorado Springs. 

To save a prop

Working with CSU, and with Colorado Iron and Metal crew chief Coty Bailey and company owner Kent Garvin, Clark took the propeller home on his flatbed trailer, where it stayed for several weeks while he figured out what to do with it.

Bailey connected Clark with the Wings of Freedom Tour and the Collings Foundation, which commissions special flights aboard WWII-era aircraft. From there, Clark met Bill Klaers, CEO of the National Museum of WWII Aviation.

Klaers is also the owner of Westpac Restorations, a company that specializes in WWII aircraft restoration, propellers and metal forming. He has confirmed the rarity and authenticity of the propeller. What was most exciting to Klaers was its condition; most propellers of that era are damaged or broken, but because the wind tunnel was used for research only, and the propeller lived behind a panel, its condition was near perfect.

“It is a rather rare and unique thing,” Klaers said. “I was very excited when I saw the picture.”

The Colorado Springs museum, which has an education and outreach mission, has brought roughly 8,000 school-aged children through its doors in the last two years. Klaers says the propeller is a welcome addition to the museum’s educational efforts. It’s currently being used to demonstrate pitch and control of a constant-speed propeller.

“It’s amazing how these things evolve. My only goal was to find the prop a home.”

A piece of CSU engineering history

What of the decommissioned wind tunnel? Constructed in the early 1960s, its official name was the Meteorological Wind Tunnel, and it once housed hundreds of wind research projects that brought CSU world fame.

Its originator was the late Jack Cermak, a University Distinguished Professor who founded the Fluid Dynamics and Diffusion Laboratory in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Cermak was known for conducting experiments on wind and skyscrapers inside wind tunnels. It is unclear exactly how CSU acquired the propeller, but at the time, utilizing scrap from war-era planes and other machines was a common practice.

Jon Peterka, a retired Fort Collins engineer, worked on the tunnel as a student under Cermak in about 1962 or 1963, he recalls. He’s not sure, but at the time, he was led to understand that the propeller came from an aircraft in an Arizona mothball yard.

“It’s amazing how these things evolve,” Clark said. “My only goal was to find the prop a home.”

 Bill Klaers, CEO of the National Museum of WWII Aviation and co-owner of Westpac Restorations, gladly accepted the donated propeller. 

The propeller being installed in CSU’s Meteorological Wind Tunnel in about 1960.