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


Part I : INITIATIONS : 1936-1945



The Beginnings of a Laboratory




[23] THE scene now shifts from Washington, D.C., to California. What, T and exactly where, was this Sunnyvale site over which there has been so much argument? In 1939 it was an Army air training base located on a thousand acres of boggy land at the foot of San Francisco Bay, six miles from the university (Stanford) town of Palo Alto and about 38 miles from the city of San Francisco. A few miles away was the town of Sunnyvale after which it was originally named.

The Sunnyvale site had in June 1933 been named Moffett Field in honor of Rear Adm. William A. Moffett who had much to do with its establishment and who, on April 4, 1933, was killed when the giant dirigible Akron which he was commanding crashed into a stormy Atlantic Ocean off the New Jersey coast. At that time, the rigid airship was thought to hold much promise for both commercial and military usage and the United States had built three-the Shenandoah, the Akron, and the Macon. The Shenandoah in 1925 was destroyed by violent air currents encountered over Ohio. For the operation of the Akron and the Macon, a West Coast base was required; and thus it was that, in 1930-1931, after an extensive survey conducted by Admiral Moffett and his staff, the site which was named Sunnyvale was selected.1 Actually, the new base might more appropriately have been named after the nearest town, Mountain View, but "Sunnyvale" presented a more pleasing image for an airfield and seemed less likely to elicit critical questions about site selection. One result of the naming was that, since mail to the new base was routed through Mountain View, incoming letters bore the awkward address, "U.S. Naval Air Station, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, California."

Like the dinosaurs of old, the rigid airships of the 1930's met with rather sudden extinction. America's rigid-airship program came to a halt when, on February 12, 1935, the Macon, then based at Sunnyvale, crashed into the Pacific Ocean off Point Sur. But hopes for the gas-filled behemoths....




Moffett Field Location

Moffett Field Location


....of the sky were kept alive by the successful transatlantic operations of the German airship Hindenburg under the command of the veteran airship pilot Hugo Eckener. These hopes went up in flames, however, when on May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg; burned at the landing dock at Lakehurst, New Jersey.

The Navy's need for the Sunnyvale base largely disappeared with the crash of the Macon. The huge Sunnyvale hangar, 198 feet high, 1133 feet long, and covering about eight acres, now seemingly useless, remained a landmark mocking honest men for plans gone awry. Thus the Navy was not unhappy when an opportunity arose to trade Sunnyvale to the Army for a number of assets, among which, reportedly, was the Army's North Island base in San Diego, Harbor. The transfer officially took place on October 25, 1935, and Sunnyvale became a U.S. Army air training base. 2 The Army's [25] little training planes, housed in a hangar so huge that the weather was rumored to be different at the two ends, looked like ants in an empty sugar barrel. This was the situation when the first NACA contingents appeared at the base.

At the time of NACA s arrival at Moffett Field in 1939, the commanding officer was Lieutenant Colonel George L. Usher; he, however, was shortly replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. M. Goolrick, USA. The land originally assigned to NACA by the Army was a parcel of about 62 acres located at the western border of Moffett Field, to which NACA added about 39 acres purchased from private owners at a cost of approximately $20,000. The Army's land contribution was not a gift to NACA. Rather, NACA was merely allowed to use the land for the construction and operation of a research laboratory.3




While the use of Moffett Field was generally advantageous to NACA, the site nevertheless introduced a number of specific technical problems. The plot of land assigned to NACA was of a rather odd, boot shape, offering difficulties in the layout of roads and facilities. Another problem was the question of earthquake hazard: the great San Andreas Fault lay in the range of mountains only a few miles to the west. To withstand the twitches of earth along this famous rift line, all buildings would have to be designed to resist a lateral acceleration of about 0.2 g. A third problem concerned the stability of the land itself. In past years, so much water had been pumped from the ground to irrigate the orchards of the Santa Clara Valley that the surface of a large region near Moffett Field was known to have settled several feet. To prevent further lowering of the subsurface water table, and further land subsidence, percolating reservoirs had been built in the foothills surrounding the valley, but at the time NACA arrived at Moffett Field, there was some question as to whether subsidence had actually ceased. There was little that NACA engineers could do about this matter except cross their fingers and hope that Moffett Field, already low, would not sink beneath the waves of San Francisco Bay.




It was generally understood that the staff of the Committee's new laboratory would be built around a nucleus of experienced men from Langley. There was little surprise therefore when, even before the site for the new laboratory had been officially announced, Dr. Lewis asked John F. Parsons [26] of the Langley staff to take charge of construction. At that time the head of the laboratory had not been named, but Smith J. DeFrance had for nearly a year been carrying out missions associated with the project and appeared a logical choice for the position. It was not until July 25, 1940, however, that DeFrance was formally appointed Engineer-in-Charge.4

Smitty DeFrance was an old timer at Langley and his experience in aviation was of still earlier origin. Born in Michigan in 1896, DeFrance was attending the University of Michigan when World War I erupted. He thereupon left the university to serve with the Air Service in Europe as a pursuit pilot and as flight commander of the 139th Aero Squadron. He served with a distinction that won him the Silver Star Medal. At war's end, Smitty resumed his studies at the university and in 1922 was awarded a degree in aeronautical engineering.

DeFrance had joined the staff of NACA's Langley laboratory in 1922 and since then had been responsible for the design and construction of most of that laboratory's major research facilities. Although DeFrance had no official flying responsibilities at Langley, he was involved while there in a flying accident that cost him an eye and nearly his life. At the time of his appointment to the Moffett Field post, DeFrance held the position of Assistant Chief of Aerodynamics and was in charge of Langley's four largest wind tunnels, including the 30- by 60-foot tunnel, the largest of its kind. He also headed a group which was engaged in the design of new research facilities required both for the expansion at Langley and for the new Moffett Field laboratory.

Jack Parsons had come to Langley in 1931 from Stanford University where, after his graduation in 1930, he had served for a year as technical assistant to Dr. William F. Durand in the editing of the major six-volume work Aerodynamic Theory, of which Durand was Editor-in-Chief. At Langley, Parsons had worked closely with DeFrance, had been a project engineer in the 30- by 60-foot tunnel for a number of years, and since July 1936 had been engaged in the design, construction, and operation of a new 19-foot pressurized tunnel, one of the most complex and costly wind tunnels that NACA had yet constructed. At the new Moffett Field laboratory, Parsons would be in charge of planning, designing, contracting, and construction.

At this stage, late in 1939, Russell G. (Russ) Robinson entered the picture at Moffett Field. Robinson had come directly to Langley after graduating from Stanford in 1930. He had subsequently been assigned the leading role in the design and operation of Langley's highly advanced, 8-foot, 600+-mph wind tunnel. In 1939 Robinson was chosen as one of the key....



Russell Robinson (right) supervising the first excavation for Ames laboratory Dec. 20, 1939.

Russell Robinson (right) supervising the first excavation for Ames laboratory Dec. 20, 1939.


....members of the new NACA coordination activity initiated by the actions of the NACA Special Subcommittee on Future Research Facilities. In December 1939, he was sent to California to carry out two missions. One was to establish a California-based coordination activity to handle NACA liaison with the western aircraft industry and universities. His second mission was to serve as the on-site representative of the construction group, which was still at Langley, and to initiate the erection of an inexpensive wooden building which would serve as a construction shack and temporary office building for the new laboratory. Both missions were accomplished very successfully. On December 20, 1939, a photograph was taken of Robinson, witnessing the first minor, but historic, excavation for the first NACA structure at Moffett Field. The site he had chosen for the building, central to the construction area, was squarely in the middle of Colonel Usher's baseball diamond.

DeFrance remained at Langley for a while to carry on with the facility design work; but, to get construction underway, it was necessary for Parsons to get out to Moffett Field as soon as possible. Thus it was that, on January 29, 1940, he and Ferril R. Nickle, also of Langley, arrived on the scene at Moffett Field. They were the first permanent members of the laboratory's staff to arrive on site. Other early arrivals from Langley were: Carlton Bioletti, March 1; Arthur B. Freeman, March 2; Edward R. Sharp, March 11; Manie G. Poole, March 11; H. Julian Allen, April 13; George E. Bulifant, April 17; Howard W. Kirschbaum, April 29; John P. Houston, April 29; Edward W. Betts, May 21; and James A. White, June 3.

Sharp came out from Langley as Administrative Officer but, with the arrival of DeFrance on August 20, he returned to the East to work on the construction of NACA's new engine research laboratory, of which he later became Director. Following Sharp's departure, Arthur Freeman became Acting Administrative Officer under DeFrance.



John F. Parsons (left) and Ferril R. Nickle (right), first members of Ames staff, standing in front of construction shack Jan. 29, 1940.

John F. Parsons (left) and Ferril R. Nickle (right), first members of Ames staff, standing in front of construction shack Jan. 29, 1940.


Ames staff on August 30, 1940, standing in front of new flight research building.

Ames staff on August 30, 1940, standing in front of new flight research building. From left to right: First row: M. U. Nettle, M. A. Willey, M. H. Davies, M. W. St. John, S. J. DeFrance, E. R. Sharp, M. G. Poole, V. Burgess, R. A. Pipkin. Second row: A. B. Freeman, T. W. O'Briant, L. T. Videll, C. F. Wilson, R. M. Foster, M. C. Massa, M. J. Hood, C. Bioletti, C. W. Frick, W. G. Vincenti, I]. W. Kirschbaum, L. A. Rodert, E. C. Braig, C. Gerbo. Third row: R. E. Browning, D. H. Wood, R. Hughes, G. Bulifant, J. V. Kelley, H. J. Allen, J. P. Houston, K. S. Burchard, M. A. Greene. Fourth row: A. G. Buck, E. W. Betts, R. E. Braig, H. J. Goett, J. F. Parsons, H. S. Dunlap, L. E. Minden, F. J. Clarke, Fifth row: W. O. Peterson, W. Walker, C. H. Harvey, J. C. Delaney, T. W. Macomber, A. L. Blocker, N. K. Delany, A. S. Hertzog, F. R. Nickle, P. T. Prizler, R. R. Benn, E. H. A. Schnitker.


[29] Augmenting the group of early arrivals from Langley were people recruited from other sources, some fresh from school. Among these were John Delaney, Noel Delany, Andre Buck, Alvin Hertzog, Mark Greene, Walter Peterson, Charles Harvey, Walter Vincenti, Charles Frick, Helen Davies, and Marie St. John. By the end of August the laboratory staff had grown to about 50.




Within the inner councils of NACA, the question of a name for the Committee s new laboratory at Moffett Field had come up for discussion. In January and February, Dr. Edward Warner had proposed the name of "Ames" to his fellow Committee members.5 There was a very good response to this suggestion, but the names of Wright and Curtiss were also introduced as alternate possibilities.

The general practice of waiting until a man was dead before so honoring him was noted during the discussion, but there had been exceptions, and most members agreed that it was eminently fitting and just that a man who made such a major contribution both to NACA and to the Moffett Field laboratory as had Dr. Ames deserved to be given the honor while he lived. After further discussion, unanimous agreement was reached on naming the laboratory after Dr. Ames. It was further decided that the announcement of the naming should be made on the occasion of a reunion luncheon of present and former members of NACA to commemorate the 25th anniversary of their first meeting. The event took place in Washington on April 18, 1940.

Dr. Ames was too ill to attend the luncheon, but a special delegation headed by Dr. Warner and including Dr. Lewis and John Victory had earlier been sent to Dr. Ames' residence in Baltimore to apprise him of the Committee's action. The special delegation spoke feelingly to Dr. Ames of their gratitude for his contributions to NACA, and to aviation, and delivered a letter which they had prepared saying that, with the approval of the President of the United States, the NACA had decided to name its new laboratory at Moffett Field the "Ames Aeronautical Laboratory."

The letter went on to say:


The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, in recognition of the contributions to progress that have come from its research laboratories at Langley Field, Virginia, is proud thus to honor its distinguished past Chairman' whose great vision, initiative, leadership, and sound professional judgment, over a period of twenty-four years of patriotic and devoted service to his country, have so largely laid the foundations for the science of aeronautics and developed a research organization that has [30] earned the confidence and respect of the people of the United States and the entire aeronautical world.6


The honor was most fitting and well deserved. It was announced to the public as planned on April 18, 1940.7 The Ames Aeronautical Laboratory must now strive to live up to its name. The signature on Dr. Ames' letter of thanks was quavery. It was well that the naming of the Laboratory had not been further delayed.

The layout of the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory provided an opportunity to pay respect to other men who had made important contributions as members of NACA. Thus the street names of the Laboratory have included an Arnold Avenue, a Bush Circle, a King Road, a Durand Road, a Warner Road, and, later, a Wolcott Road.


1 See U.S. Navy publication: Moffett Field, 1933-1958 Silver Anniversary.

2 ibid.

3 Minutes of the NACA Executive Committee meeting of Feb. 7, 1940, indicate that the Assistant Secretary of War issued on Dec. 7, 1939, a permit to NACA for the construction of research facilities at Moffett Field (Sunnyvale).

4 The appointment was officially documented by a letter (travel authorization TAL-21) dated July 25, 1940, which transferred DeFrance from Langley to Ames. The letter was signed by John F. Victory, Secretary.

5 Letter, Edward Warner to Dr. Vannevar Bush, with attachments, Feb. 8, 1940, NACA Executive Committee approved the name at a meeting held on Mar. 12, 1940.

6 Letter, Special Committee on Notification (E. P. Warner, Chairman, Charles Abbot Lyman Briggs, G. W. Lewis, and J. F. Victory) to Dr. Joseph S. Ames, Apr. 17, 1940.

7 NACA press release, Apr. 18, 1940: "New Sunnyvale Laboratory Named for Former NACA Chairman. "