A few months after the D-Day invasion, Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and his son John – then an Army second lieutenant – walked along the Normandy beaches and pondered the course of the war. “You’d never get away with this if you didn’t have air supremacy,” the son told his father. “Without air supremacy,” the general responded, “I wouldn’t be here.”
To be certain, the aviation advantage we eventually achieved on both the European and Pacific fronts of the war was due to the efforts of many parties – the Army Air Corps, Navy, industry, university labs, our Allies, and the NACA.
On April 11, 1946, Eisenhower visited the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio (today the NASA John Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field), to personally thank the NACA staff for their role in helping to provide the Allied air forces with control of the skies over the European theater of operations. A beaming Dr. Edward Sharp, the lab’s first director, reveled in Ike’s acknowledgement of NACA’s role.
The Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory, whose research began on May 8, 1942, and the NACA Ames Aeronautical Laboratory in Mountain View, California, formed Dec. 20, 1939, plus the expansion of the NACA Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, were the physical manifestations of an NACA that grew dramatically due to the late 1930s concern that some areas of American aeronautical research were falling behind the Europeans, and the nation needed to catch up should it be dragged into war. The expansion of the NACA staff and budget from about 500 people and $4 million at the beginning of World War II to more than 6,000 people and $41 million by war’s end1 was also indicative of the importance America placed on applied aeronautical research tied directly to the operational needs of the U.S. Army Air Corps and U.S. naval aviation, as opposed to the fundamental basic research that the NACA was used to conducting.
To be certain, the aviation advantage we eventually achieved on both the European and Pacific fronts of the war was due to the efforts of many parties – the Army Air Corps, Navy, industry, university labs, our Allies, and the NACA. And as has often been pointed out, the NACA and the rest of the American aviation establishment fell short during World War II when it came to keeping up with British and German advances in jet aviation, and in the case of Germany, rocket propulsion. While there were American scientists familiar with jet and rocket propulsion, the national and military leadership decided it was best to devote resources toward improving the performance of existing technologies and concentrate on mass production. But clearly the NACA made many significant contributions to the war effort, including improving the speed, range, and maneuverability of aircraft through meticulous work on drag cleanup; the use of improved airfoils to reduce drag and better aerodynamic engine cooling; the development of deicing systems used to save the lives of airmen flying in the most difficult of weather conditions; improving the performance of high-powered piston engines; increasing aircraft stability, control, and handling qualities; and giving pilots a fighting chance of survival when they had to ditch their planes in the ocean.
Buffeted by the Winds of War
NACA’s World War II story, and a fundamental change in the size and scope of the organization and approach to research, actually begins in the prewar years, when the Committee’s man in Europe, Paris-based John J. Ide, in 1936 reported to the home office on greatly expanded aeronautical research efforts in England, France, Italy, and Germany.2 In 1936, George Lewis, NACA’s Director of Aeronautical Research, inserted a deft warning to the government in the NACA’s annual report, stating that “increased recognition abroad of the value and of the vital necessity of aeronautical research has led to recent tremendous expansion in research programs and to multiplication of research facilities by other progressive nations. Thus has the foundation been laid for a serious challenge to America’s present leadership in the technical development of aircraft.” In September-October of that year Lewis flew to Germany aboard the airship Hindenburg, in part because of these developments and in part because of an invitation by Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei. Once there, he received a complete guided tour of German aerospace research facilities and was both impressed and disquieted by their activities. Reflecting on Germany’s commitment to exceeding American aeronautics facilities, Lewis reported back, “The cost is not considered.” He also reported that “the personnel of the German research laboratories is [sic] larger in number, and the engineers have the opportunity of having special training, which has not been afforded to many of our own engineers.” States former NASA historian Roger Launius, currently Associate Director of Collections and Curatorial Affairs at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, the Lewis trip “really set them [NACA] on a new path where they realized that they needed to do high-speed work, that they needed to do more wind tunnels, that they needed to do propulsion research that they really hadn’t done much of. They sort of woke up and said, ‘Oh my God. We need to get busy.’”