In hindsight, one of the strangest things about the Wright Brothers’ 1903 flight of a powered, pilot-controlled aircraft over the dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, is the quiet interval that followed. It’s tempting to compare this lull to the dizzying aftermath of an earthquake – to declare the Wrights’ invention so revolutionary the world simply didn’t know what to do with it – but the truth is more complicated: True, neither the U.S. military nor private industry clamored to manufacture Wright-designed flying machines after Kitty Hawk, but it’s also true that this reluctance was due, in part, to the Wright brothers’ idiosyncratic character flaws: They were both publicity-shy and stubbornly secretive. For a time, they refused to show their machine to anyone they thought might steal their designs – including the U.S. military, which earlier had backed one of their rivals, Smithsonian Institution Secretary Samuel P. Langley, with a $50,000 grant for flight research. In 1905, Orville and Wilbur Wright simply disassembled their plane and hid the parts for a while. It wasn’t until after the Wrights got over their reticence and performed an astonishing series of demonstration flights in the United States and Europe, in 1908 and 1909, that the airplane really captured the imaginations of the American public and made Orville and Wilbur arguably the most famous people in the world.
While the possibility of flight had been underappreciated in the United States, it had already caught on in Europe by the time of the Wrights’ barnstorming tours. Aeronautical research programs had been launched in Russia, Germany, and France, and the most organized approach emerged in the United Kingdom, which formed its own Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1909 – the year the Wrights’ hometown of Dayton, Ohio, finally decided the brothers merited a parade and fireworks.
Efforts to establish a parallel research infrastructure in the United States foundered, as long-simmering rivalries endured among institutions and government agencies that had spent years placing their bets in the form of dollars funneled to competing researchers. The federal government had all but pulled the plug on flight research after Kitty Hawk, shuttering the disgraced Langley’s lab at the Smithsonian.
Nevertheless, a core of American aviation enthusiasts persisted in backing a national center of aeronautical research. At the 1911 inaugural meeting of the American Aeronautical Society, members first raised the idea of federal support for such a laboratory, but infighting persisted until Smithsonian Secretary Charles D. Walcott dispatched a pair of fact-finders – Dr. Jerome C. Hunsaker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and physicist Albert Zahm – to the research facilities of Europe. Their report, issued in 1914, pointed to a yawning gap between American and European research – and when war broke out in Europe later that summer, Walcott pressed for legislative action.
The new program of federal support for aeronautical research was codified in two short paragraphs buried in the Naval Appropriations Act of 1915. The law’s precise wording didn’t establish a national laboratory – though it left open the possibility – but granted the president the authority to select 12 unpaid members of an advisory committee for aeronautics, “to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight, with a view to their practical solution, and to determine the problems which should be experimentally attacked, and to discuss their solution and their application to practical questions.” The law also appropriated $5,000 annually for five years, to fund research and administrative expenses.
The First Five Years
In its first meeting, seven weeks after Congress had created this agency, its new members voted to name it the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and organized it into a main committee – an independent agency reporting directly to the president – and an executive committee, which directed the work of the NACA and appointed panels of technical experts who would divide the agency’s work into topical subcommittees.
Almost immediately, the NACA began to lay the groundwork for a national aeronautics research center, to include an experimental airfield and laboratories. Congress eventually and grudgingly approved a funding request for site identification and construction, and the committee chose a 1,650-acre tract across the river from Norfolk, Virginia, that offered several advantages: It was near water, which would enable evaluations of over-water flight, and it was flat and relatively clear. It was also near the nation’s capital, the skilled labor market of Newport News, and existing military facilities.