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NACA: The Jet Age and Beyond

1946-1958

 

For survivors of the greatest conflict in history, the brave new post-World War II landscape could not have been more daunting. Battle-scarred nations throughout Europe and Asia lay prostrate. With an economy not only untouched, but actually strengthened by the conflict, the United States was in a unique position among all the great industrial powers to exploit in peace technological advances identified and created in war.

The result was that the period from 1945 to 1958 ran the gamut for the NACA: beginning somewhat inauspiciously, coming from behind the technological curve, to achieving a breathtaking tally of aviation breakthroughs.

In Adventures in Research: A History of Ames Research Center, 1940-1965, Edwin P. Hartman observed that in 1946, for the United States and the NACA in particular, “A revolution in aeronautical science was at hand. The signs, brought into clear focus by a world war, were everywhere. The vistas opening were inspiring and sobering. Indeed, they were humiliating in their revelation of our state of ignorance and unpreparedness. Our experience would do us little good; it related to airplanes of the kind pioneered by the Wright brothers. We were entering an era of transonic and supersonic aerodynamics, of jet and rocket engines, and of missiles. These developments represented not a normal extrapolation of our aeronautical past but a sudden and magnificent leap into the future.”

As Hartman noted, the NACA found itself, with some embarrassment, playing catch-up in aviation technology. It was an ironic repetition of the situation experienced by the nation in 1914 that prompted the creation of the NACA in the first place. The reason for that was simple enough. Wartime exigencies and an intimate partnership with the military caused the NACA to focus more on short-term solving of specific problems within existing technologies used by the military than on forward-looking long-term solutions that would advance aeronautical knowledge.

X-2 No. 1

X-2 Number 1 (#674) in flight over Southern California. The X-2 pushed beyond Mach 3, but the program was curtailed after the death of pilot Mel Apt while flight testing the aircraft. NASA image

The result was that the period from 1945 to 1958 ran the gamut for the NACA: beginning somewhat inauspiciously, coming from behind the technological curve, to achieving a breathtaking tally of aviation breakthroughs. NACA partnered with the Air Force to develop piloted research vehicles to study problems likely to be encountered in flights in the upper atmosphere and outer space and at hypersonic speeds. That research began with the X-1 and reached its apogee with the X-15 program, which began under the NACA and reached its peak after the creation of NASA. The X-planes conducted a wide range of aeronautical exploration, from the straight-winged X-1 family of high-speed, rocket-powered research craft, to the swept-wing X-2, the aptly-named jet-propelled X-3 Stiletto, the semi-tailless X-4 Bantam, the swing-wing X-5, and more, each exploring one or more unknown areas of the aerodynamic research spectrum. NACA also tested prototypes that never reached production but were useful research aircraft, like the D-558-1, the D-558-2, and the delta-winged XF-92. The aircraft were only the most visible of NACA’s research efforts, as the agency also helped develop and improve many industry designs as well as delving into pure research in the labs and wind tunnels. NACA’s work culminated at the advent of the Space Age, with the baton passing from NACA to NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...