SP-4302 Adventures in Research: A History of Ames Research Center 1940-1965


Part I : INITIATIONS : 1936-1945



Wartime Review


[111] THE end of the war on August 14, 1945, came quietly as far as effects on the operation of the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory were concerned. Through sheer inertia, the work of the Laboratory carried on essentially unchanged into the next year. Although the portents for the future of aviation were impressive, it was a time when the Ames Laboratory people unwound just a bit: a time for reflection. In the furious sweaty environment of war, the Laboratory had passed. all tests very well. In this, DeFrance and his staff could take considerable satisfaction. Ames had made useful, sometimes vital, contributions to a great many of the high-performance airplanes the country had developed and had won much praise from the military services and the aircraft companies. Moreover, this contribution had been made while building a new Laboratory-a new Laboratory of facilities and men. There was now in operation or under construction at Ames a rather impressive array of modern aeronautical research facilities valued at about $21 million. There was also a well-organized, functioning staff totaling 800, which included a surprisingly large number of very able research men, a few truly outstanding.

Much of the research effort at Ames during the war had been spent in assisting the military services and the aircraft companies in developing aircraft having a maximum of performance and military usefulness. In reflecting on this work, the Laboratory's only cause for regret was that so few of the new airplanes on which it had worked had made any substantial contribution toward winning the war or, for that matter, now held any great promise for future military usefulness. With a few exceptions such as the B-29, the P-51, and the F6F, the fighting airplanes with which the war was won were designed and first built prior to Pearl Harbor. It was in the improvement of these somewhat older airplanes that Ames had, perhaps, made its greatest contribution to the war effort.

Neither NACA nor the aircraft industry, nor for that matter the military services, was prepared for the avalanche of aircraft development work precipitated by the war. Of course there had been forewarnings since 1935 of [112] what was to come, but these storm signals had either gone unheeded or their significance had not been fully evaluated by those who had authority to take effective action. In retrospect one could see what should have been done. NACA should much earlier and more forcefully have asserted its need for a new powerplants laboratory and a new aerodynamics laboratory. The military services, in the latter half of the 1930's, should have greatly accelerated the development of new aircraft types, thus allowing industry to expand its engineering and design capabilities. Neither of these steps, however, could have been taken without the approval of Congress, which should have been more foresightedly generous with its appropriations for aeronautical research and development.

When war came, the failures of anticipation and action just mentioned were paid for in terms of confusion and inefficiency, and a concomitant waste of effort, talent, materiel, and funds. Conditions would have been worse had it not been for the initial acceleration provided by the substantial orders for aircraft received by American industry from Great Britain during the period 1939-1941. As it was, aircraft procurement during the wartime rush showed evidence of disorderliness, too little thought, and too little planning. In retrospect and in the light of the then-existing shortage of design talent, design information, and test facilities, it appeared that the airplane designs attempted during that period were too many in number and some a bit too exotic and ambitious in character. The rush of aircraft development was so great that by the time model tests were completed in Ames wind tunnels, the development of the airplane was, in some instances, so far advanced that it was not feasible to make the design changes which the wind-tunnel tests indicated were necessary. For this and other reasons of misjudgment, costly prototypes had to be junked.

The war brought into evidence the lack of basic design data available to industry for the proper design of new high-powered, high-speed aircraft types. For certain reasons, the plausibility of which could readily be established, NACA had not provided the required data; moreover, faced with the demands of war, the agency found that it lacked the facilities and staff to carry on both development work and basic research adequately. Nor had the military, long dependent on NACA for research and development support, provided sufficient facilities of its own. Thus there arose, quite legitimately, the question of whether the military had depended too much on NACA.

Aircraft designers utilized such design data as were available and then bravely struck forth to new heights on the basis of engineering intuition. Experienced designers were spread too thinly and exuberant young men, fresh out of college, often gained sharp lessons in design at some cost to the Government. New design groups without inhibitions, and old design groups with inhibitions abandoned, put forward highly imaginative design proposals which found surprisingly ready acceptance by the military. Such cases....



Aerial view of Ames Aeronautical Laboratory on July 3, 1945, at the end of World War II.

Aerial view of Ames Aeronautical Laboratory on July 3, 1945, at the end of World War II. (1) Administration building, (2) Science laboratory, (3) Technical service building, (4) 40- by 80-foot wind tunnel, (5) Substation, (6)12-foot pressure wind tunnel, (7) Utilities building, (8) 16-foot high-speed wind tunnel, (9) 1- by 3-foot supersonic wind tunnels, (10) 7- by 10-foot wind tunnel no. 1, (11) Model finishing shop, (12) 7- by 10-foot wind tunnel no. 2, (13) Flight research laboratory, and (14) Airplane hangar and shop.


....no doubt represented legitimate wartime gambles and the whole pattern of events described herein perhaps reveals no more than the normal inefficiencies of war.

Some of the aircraft design failures of the war period, it must be noted, arose from the very special circumstance that the war occurred at, indeed precipitated, the end of an era in aeronautical design. Owing to earlier successes, we had found ourselves trying to advance into a new realm of flight using traditional methods, facilities, and data which were not equal to the task. As 1945 ended, this impressive fact was becoming clear and we were ready to take our first faltering steps into the supersonic age.