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


Part I : INITIATIONS : 1936-1945



Portents and Requirements of Aviation


[5] THE necessity for keeping in touch with the world's aeronautical activities and literature was obvious to Chairman Ames, and he arranged quite early in the history of NACA for the establishment within the agency of an Office of Aeronautical Intelligence. As part of its operation, this Office maintained a liaison post in Paris-a post which from the beginning was occupied by John J. Ide. During the mid-1930's, Ide reported on the buildup of aeronautical research and development in Europe. In 1936 these reports were confirmed by evidence gained during a visit by Dr. Lewis to certain European research centers. In particular, Lewis was impressed by the progress being made by the Germans in the construction of aeronautical facilities and not a little concerned over the possibility that the accelerated activity abroad would leave NACA and the United States at a disadvantage. NACA's lead in aeronautical research was certainly disappearing and the intentions of Germany's leader, Adolf Hitler, were a source of worry.




On his return from Europe, Lewis attempted, with some success, to convey his apprehensions to Dr. Ames and the Committee.1 At the end of the year, in transmitting NACA's Annual Report to the President, Dr. Ames urged a gradual expansion of NACA research effort and noted 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.


This warning, if noticed at all by Congress, produced no startling results.




The world at this time was quite uneasy. Militancy was rampant and definitely in the ascendancy. Japan had invaded Manchuria in 1931; and in 1935 Italy had invaded Ethiopia, bombing Ethiopian cities from the air. That same year Germany openly admitted that it had built an air force in direct defiance of the Versailles Treaty. In March 1936 Hitler seized the Rhineland without resistance, and a little later the Spanish civil war was providing tests of new German, Italian, and Russian weapons. Then in 1937 Japan seized Peiping and bombed Chinese cities from the air. The military potentialities of the airplane were becoming all too evident. Hitler had recognized these potentialities from the first and, very soon after acquiring control of Germany, had given the "go ahead" signal for both aeronautical research and airplane construction.2

George Lewis saw some of the results of Hitler's actions in 1936; Germany's neighbors soon felt the results. Hitler made a bloodless conquest of Austria in March 1938 and later in the summer applied pressure on Czechoslovakia. In September at Munich, in a futile attempt at appeasement, the European nations sacrificed Czechoslovakia to his rapacious appetite. Hitler's hunger for power seemed insatiable and the peace of the world was in serious doubt. At this stage, NACA's research effort, as a logical first step in expanding the Nation's military airpower, took on an air of real urgency.




In 1938 NACA had formed a Special Committee on the Relations of NACA to National Defense in Time of War, under the chairmanship of one of its members, Major General Oscar Westover, Chief of Air Corps.3 The actions of the Special Committee were reported by General Westover at a meeting of the main Committee on August 19, 1938. Among other things, General Westover suggested that the Committee plan an additional research center somewhere in the interior of the country or on the West Coast to relieve the "congested bottleneck" at Langley Field. He asked that his Special Committee be authorized to make a study of long-range planning for such a research center.4

The "congested bottleneck" to which General Westover referred was [7] the lack of space at Langley for any further expansion of NACA's activities and the shortage of available electric power in that area to satisfy the demands of NACA s new high-speed wind tunnels. The Army Air Corps rather flatly told NACA that it could not spare any more space at Langley; and NACA, to gain only a small amount of badly needed land, was planning to go to the expense of building a seawall on its Back River border and filling in behind the wall.5 This expedient had limited possibilities for future expansion.

The power shortage, moreover, appeared nearly as critical as the land shortage. Up to that time, NACA in designing new equipment had been limited to the use of 8000 horsepower at one time. To get even this amount of power, at off-peak rates, operation had to be limited largely to the period from midnight to 6 a.m. 6 The local power company, the Virginia Public Service Corp., had no links which tied Langley Field in with major power sources in Norfolk, Richmond, or elsewhere. A temporary expedient undertaken by NACA was the construction of a 10,000-horsepower diesel-powered generating plant at Langley, but this action apparently aroused the opposition of Senator Carter Glass of Virginia. The ultimate hope was that a tie-in with other power sources could be effected. The Virginia Public Service Corp. had no objection to such a tie-in but wanted the U.S. Government to pay for it. In any case, the bottleneck referred to by General Westover seemed very real.7




Soon after the Committee's meeting on August 19, 1938, General Westover was killed in an airplane crash, and the membership of the Special Committee was further diminished by the death of Dr. Willis Ray Gregg. At its meeting in October, NACA decided to discharge the existing Special Committee and form a new Special Committee on Future Research Facilities to study the new research center proposed earlier by General Westover. The new Special Committee appointed by Dr. Ames was made up of Rear Admiral Arthur B. Cook, Chief of the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics (Chairman); Major General Henry H. Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Corps; The Honorable Edward J. Noble, Chairman of the newly formed Civil Aeronautics Authority; Dr. Edward P. Warner; and Dr. George W. Lewis.8

The Special Committee on Future Research Facilities wasted no time in carrying out its mission and was able to make its report to Dr. Ames on [8] December 30, 1938. It seemed clear that considerable staff work had been accomplished ahead of time by Dr. Lewis and Mr. Victory.

The Special Committee made three strong recommendations:


(1) The establishment of a second major aeronautical research station by NACA on the present Army field known as Sunnyvale, California, the necessary land to be set aside for the Committee's use by the Secretary of War.
Estimated cost $11,000,000
(2) The construction of certain additional research facilities (including a new power line) at the Committee's present single research station at Langley Field, Virginia, and the immediate expansion of the research staff to meet present needs and to provide a nucleus of trained research workers for the Sunnyvale station.
Estimated cost $2,440,000
(3) A plan for the more effective coordination of applied aeronautical research in industry and for the stimulation of research in educational institutions.9
Estimated cost $52,000


What was being proposed by the Special Committee was an expansion of NACA facilities to the tune of about 120 percent. Beyond that, the concept of multiple NACA research centers was one that would certainly give pause to economy-minded legislators. People wary of proliferating Government agencies might feel that little NACA was getting too big for its britches. But the Special Committee provided some solid supporting evidence for its recommendation. It pointed out that-


Aeronautics is more vital to national defense than ever before. Present plans of the Army and Navy contemplate a material expansion in aircraft procurement and in the development of air strength. To be of maximum value for military purposes, aircraft must have the highest attainable performance. In the light of world events, and particularly in the light of emphasis that is being placed on the development of aircraft in foreign countries, it is of the greatest importance that the United States excel or at least equal other nations in the technical development of aircraft. The United States has led in the technical development of both military and commercial aircraft during the past decade. This has been made possible largely by reason of the sound organization and effective prosecution of scientific laboratory research under the cognizance of NACA.


The Special Committee also noted that-


In the last four or five years, Germany has multiplied its aeronautical [9] research activities at least tenfold. It is known that whereas the United States has one major research center at Langley Field, Germany has five research centers, one of which [at Adlershof] has four times the staff: of the NACA laboratories at Langley Field.

The Special Committee spoke of Italy's new city of Guidonia, entirely devoted to aeronautical research, and of Russia's Central Aero-Hydrodynamical Institute in Moscow, where 3500 employees were engaged in aeronautical research and development. It also referred to progressive countries which were extending their commercial and political influence abroad through air trade routes and of the necessity for improving airplane design to accomplish this purpose. The main burden of the Committee's argument, however, concerned the tremendous emphasis being placed by Germany on the development of air power supported by a concentration of much of its scientific resources on aeronautical research. "To meet this scientific challenge," the Committee said, "the United States must more than redouble its efforts and the NACA should be authorized to establish without delay a second research center and to proceed immediately with the construction of the most advanced wind tunnels and other aeronautical research equipment."

These recommendations presented a sobering picture and one which, combined with the truculent attitude of Hitler, flashed an imperative warning. But two of the men on the Special Committee were from the military services, and might this be just another case of overzealousness on the part of professional soldiers in preparing for dubious military threats? Was this new research station really needed, or was it a bit of empire building?


1 NACA 22d Annual Report 1936, p. 3. What Dr. Lewis learned about German aviation was shortly confirmed by Dr. Clark B. Millikan, Maj. Lester Gardner, and other Americans who attended the first formal meeting of the new German society for aeronautical research (Lilienthal-Gesellschaft fur Luftfahrt-forschung) in Berlin on Oct. 12-15, 1936. For an account of this meeting and visits of Americans to German aviation centers, see the Journal of the Aeronautical Sciences, vol. 4, no. 1, Nov. 1936, pp. 19-27.

2 As stated in NACA memorandum, "some Major Considerations Underlying the Extension of Research Facilities at Langley Field and the Establishment of a Second Major Research station for NACA at Sunnyvale, California,'' distributed to newspapers and magazines on Mar. ,1939.

3 Mentioned in NACA 25th Annual Report 1939, p 38. committee members, other than Westover, were Dr. W. R. Gregg, Chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau, and Rear Adm. Arthur B. Cook, USN.

4 Ibid.

5 Space and power problems stated in "Memorandum for Rear Admiral Cook, USN, Chairman Special Committee on Future Research Facilities," from J. F. Victory, Secretary NACA, Nov. 4, 1938.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid

8 NACA 25th Annual Report 1939, p. 38.

9 Mentioned in NACA 25th Annual Report 1939, p. 38. Report with several appendices transmitted with letter to Dr. Joseph S. Ames from Special Committee on Future Research Facilities, Dec. 30,1938.