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From NACA to NASA: Blessed from Birth

The people behind the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics

 

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the NACA to the United States, and for that matter, to the world, for in the course of its 43-year career it pushed the limits of everything from technology to the law. In technology, it chose to build a series of wind tunnels, each a bit ahead of its time, from which unprecedented data were derived. The raw data results were received with gratitude by the industry, not least because they were often confirmed through hazardous test flights by a galaxy of famous NACA research pilots including Eddie Allen, William A. “Bill” McAvoy, Thomas Carroll, and many more, including the long-serving John P. “Jack” Reeder. These men became popular heroes in the aviation community, and they were well aware that their exploits derived from the efforts of their engineer and scientist colleagues.

The two men, who would be prominent in the field for decades to come, issued a report in 1914 that clearly showed U.S. aviation to be lagging in technical development and that the European leads would increase in the near future.

The latter’s names were well known in the industry. They included such stellar performers as Jerome Hunsaker, Fred E. Weick, James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle, Richard Whitcomb, and many others. In truth, the skies of the NACA were filled with stars of both the theoretical and the practical side of test flying. What is surprising is the length of time that many of these great leaders served NACA, even as they achieved outstanding status in their own professions.

LMAL aerial view

Aerial view of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (LMAL) east area, about 1920. NASA Image

It is less well known that engineers and test pilots in other countries benefited as well from NACA information. As two examples, both the Messerschmitt Me 262 and the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 used NACA airfoils as the basis for initial wing and control surface designs.

How it all Began

In 1911, the American Aeronautical Society sought to create a center for aeronautical research and turned to the Smithsonian Institution, which had backed Samuel Pierpont Langley’s successful work with models and his failures with their scaled up versions. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the National Bureau of Standards, and even the U.S. Navy, which had just witnessed Eugene Ely’s successes, expressed positive interest.

Walcott made efforts to obtain the necessary legislation for an American aeronautical center in 1914, but was not successful.

Foreign countries had established such research centers. In Great Britain, the Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was set up in 1909. In Germany, Ludwig Prandtl, who was dominant in the field until his death at age 78 in 1953, had already turned the University of Göttingen into the premier place for theoretical aerodynamics. Meudon, in France, had been a research center since 1877 for balloons and other aeronautic experiments.

NACA Carroll

The NACA’s and LMAL’s first civilian test pilot, Thomas Carroll, pictured on March 19,1923. NASA Image

Secretary of the Smithsonian Charles D. Walcott sent two brilliant men to Europe to examine progress in aviation. They were Dr. Albert F. Zahm (a strong proponent of Langley and bitter enemy of the Wrights) and Dr. Jerome C. Hunsaker, of MIT. The two men, who would be prominent in the field for decades to come, issued a report in 1914 that clearly showed U.S. aviation to be lagging in technical development and that the European leads would increase in the near future.

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Walter J. Boyne is a retired United States Air Force officer, combat veteran, aviation historian,...