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NACA Beginnings


Work progressed slowly on the new laboratory. Walcott, chairman of the NACA executive committee and Langley’s successor as secretary of the Smithsonian, used his influence to name the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory after the late Smithsonian secretary, who had been beaten into the air by the Wright brothers, but was nevertheless a pioneer in aeronautics research. The demands of U.S. involvement in World War I, which began in 1917, hindered efforts to construct facilities, conduct research, and attract candidates for leadership positions.

The NACA’s first intramural research program, a comparative analysis of different propeller designs, was slow to produce results – Langley investigators began their work with no measuring instruments or wind tunnels – but the executive committee’s 1918 approval of the request to conduct the inquiry was nevertheless a milestone, establishing a precedent for future research authorizations.

Joseph Ames

NACA Executive Chair Joseph Ames. NASA image

In 1919, the NACA filled two leadership positions that would prove crucial to the next quarter-century of aeronautical research in the United States. Joseph S. Ames, Ph.D., then the NACA’s executive committee chair, hired George W. Lewis, a young aviation pioneer, to run the NACA professional staff for the committee. Lewis was stationed in Washington, where he could more effectively navigate the government and military bureaucracies. He promptly set about recruiting the nation’s best young scientists, engineers, and mathematicians to work on the cutting edge of aeronautical research.

Edward Warner, the brilliant young mathematician and engineer who had been educated at Harvard and MIT, became the lab’s chief physicist in early 1919, and became absorbed in the lab’s propeller work and a series of intensive flight experiments – Langley’s first – with a pair of Curtiss JN-4H “Jennies,” borrowed from the Army. He also designed and built Langley’s first wind tunnel: the five-foot Atmospheric Wind Tunnel, or AWT, a duplicate of the tunnel Warner had helped to build for Jerome Hunsaker at MIT, itself a duplicate of a wind tunnel the British had in their Advisory Committee labs.

George Lewis

NACA Director George Lewis. NASA image

Tunnel No. 1 was completed in NACA building 60 in 1920, the year the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory was officially dedicated. Based on an older “open-circuit” design, the tunnel was obsolete by the time it began operations; German engineers had already produced a closed-circuit tunnel that allowed investigators to control for pressure and humidity. Still, the project was an illustrative example of the committee’s first five years: While the NACA wasn’t yet providing the world with earth-shaking aeronautical findings, it was an institution with clearly defined roles and procedures, a new laboratory, and a growing number of eager young minds ready to tackle the problems of flight.

The NACA in the Golden Age of Aviation

The day after Langley’s formal dedication, NACA Executive Chair Joseph Ames signed four separate research authorizations. From its inception, Langley’s research program focused largely on aerodynamics, and on the use of the wind tunnel as its primary instrument. NACA engineers knew that data derived from their models in Tunnel No. 1 did not scale up accurately; numerous variables, such as atmospheric pressure, often threw their estimates way off. They needed tunnels, like those being built in Germany, that would allow them to control for those variables.

NACA Propeller Tunnel

Many of Langley Laboratory’s early experiments focused on ways to reduce aircraft drag. One method was to place a cowling over the engine cylinder heads, much like the hood over the engine of a car. By the end of September 1928, wind tunnel tests of cowling #10 showed a dramatic reduction in drag. NASA Langley image

One of Germany’s brightest aeronautical engineers, Max Munk, Ph.D., of the University of Göttingen, was ready and willing to settle in America, but because Munk had worked briefly for the German navy during World War I, it took two separate orders from President Woodrow Wilson to bring him to Langley. An expert in airfoils, Munk began developing NACA’s second wind tunnel, the Variable Density Tunnel (VDT), in 1921. Engineers began testing in the VDT the following year, and it soon proved far more valuable than Tunnel No. 1: Scaled-down models could be evaluated in an environment pressurized in accordance with their size, yielding far more reliable results. The VDT quickly earned a reputation as one of the world’s premier sources for aerodynamic data.

Meanwhile, NACA’s program of full-scale flight tests continued at the adjacent Langley Field, where a 2-mile-long runway was built in 1923 to accommodate high-speed tests. One of the first applications to be evaluated in test flights – and in Langley’s new engine research facility – was the Roots-type supercharger, which the Navy’s Bureau of Aviation believed could enable carrier-based aircraft to achieve faster climbs to altitude.

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...