TULLAHOMA, Tenn. — A few miles down a featureless highway, just past the sinking pond and the goose pond, there's a break in the trees.
Suddenly, a fighter jet appears. Then another, and then a third pops into sight -- all held aloft on steel columns. Behind the motionless aircraft, a guarded checkpoint leads into one of the most advanced research facilities in the U.S., home to the nation's largest operational wind tunnel.
The sprawling 40,000-acre test site hosts advanced experiments for NASA, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Special Operations Command and the Air Force.
No, it's not Oak Ridge or even Huntsville, Ala. Motorists who don't seek it out could go their entire lives without ever laying eyes on it.
It's the entrance to Arnold Engineering Development Complex, located almost exactly halfway between Chattanooga and Nashville in Tullahoma, Tenn. Almost everything that moves, whether it's an 18-wheeler, an F-1 racing car or a ballistic missile, needs to be tested. These guys are the testing experts.
For better or worse, the town's fortunes are inextricably tied to the level of government and corporate interest in such experiments. About a third of the town works at the complex, and the rest either work for or sell products to base personnel.
"The people here all understand the importance of the base, whether they work there or not," said Tullahoma Vice Mayor Mike Norris. "It's in the forefront of everybody's mind. If they're not working there, they're hunting on the base."
$1.4 BILLION CONTRACT
Aerospace contractor Jacobs Technology has operated the complex in one way or another since 1951 and was recently rewarded for its efforts with a key job that will propel the U.S. toward a new stage in space exploration.
The company won a $1.4 billion NASA contract to build a next-generation launch facility in Florida that will service private spaceflight -- something that naysayers have pooh-poohed for years.
The deactivation of NASA's space shuttle fleet has cleared the way for private ventures like the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, which docked in May with the International Space Station, said David Elrod, senior vice president for business development at Jacobs Technology.
"This project will serve the multiple commercial users who can use NASA facilities," Elrod said.
A few miles away, hunters prowl through the woods inside the Arnold boundary. It's deer season, and Tullahoma is one of Tennessee's most rural areas. The Air Force grants special permits to hunters who want to shoot game on the government's unused land.
"Tullahoma is a very well-kept secret, unfortunately," said Mayor Lane Curlee. "We're trying to change that."
The city has one of the state's best school systems, fiber-optic Internet and more advanced technology in its 23 square miles than most countries possess in all their cities combined, Curlee said.
On the 90-minute drive from Chattanooga, visitors must pass over a mountain and down a lonely road to find the town. Yet despite its humble appearance, about one in three residents in the town of about 20,000 holds an advanced degree.
A small army of rocket scientists works at Arnold Air Force Base or in support roles, studying the aerodynamic properties of everything from race cars to spacecraft. Jacobs Technology alone employs 300 at its Tullahoma headquarters.
"We simulate flight conditions from sea level to deep space here," Elrod said. "It's nice to be able to study high technology in rural Tennessee."
Retiree Tim Harrison, who works part time as president of the Highland Rim Bicycle Club, said that's why he decided to live here.
"It seemed like there were a lot of intelligent people around here," he said. "I'm not saying that if you hang around with a bunch of Ph.D.'s, you're going to become a Ph.D., but your vocabulary, everything educational about yourself improves."
NASA IN DIXIE
The research base was established in the early 1950s with Nazi equipment taken from the Bavarian Motor Works, or BMW, in Munich, Germany.
According to the facility's official history book, it required 58 railroad cars and two barges to transport the spoils of war to Tullahoma, not including 450 tons of equipment carried by truck.
"After World War II, the Allies saw that the Germans had research facilities for ballistic missiles, jet aircraft and cruise missiles, while the U.S. didn't have any of that," Elrod said.
Though researchers installed much more modern equipment over the years, about 10 percent of the core technology dates back to Hitler's Third Reich, he said.
Today, Jacobs Technology has carved a niche for itself commissioning advanced wind tunnels all over the world -- even building a $120 million design for BMW in Germany. Jacobs' latest contraption is a wind tunnel designed to study the flight of birds, something that's still a mystery to scientists.
Researcher Leo Benetti-Longhini said the device is designed to allow specially trained birds to fly in place while a machine takes X-rays of their wings to learn how they fly.
"Nature has come up with way cooler stuff than we ever can," Benetti-Longhini said.
A pleasant unintended consequence of a town full of scientists is the high-quality education system, said Ahmad Vakili, interim associate director for research and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.
Vakili, who was born in Iran and studied in Germany, helps run the University of Tennessee Space Institute, which is conveniently located about 10 minutes south of Arnold Air Force Base, but 80 miles from everywhere else.
"Yes, it is the woods," Vakili allowed.
Tennessee's aerospace institute was built in Tullahoma in 1964 under then-Gov. Frank Clement. As many as three dozen students earn high-level degrees every year, Vakili said, for a total of about 2,200 who have earned a degree in the rocket sciences.
"We're not as big as New York, but we also don't have to deal with the traffic," he said.
But that's part of the fun, said Rich Wakeman, vice president of Jacobs Technology.
From Tullahoma, the company flies its engineers all over the world. From South Africa to South Korea, Jacobs exports its expertise to the tune of about 100 projects per year, Wakeman said.
"We take these advanced facilities from concept to commission, and sometimes to decommissioning," he said. "And all this in Middle Tennessee."
Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...