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


[115] PART II : A NEW WORLD OF SPEED : 1946-1958


[117] 1946-1949

The Environment


[119] A REVOLUTION in aeronautical science was at hand. The signs, brought into clear focus by a world war, were everywhere. The vistas opening were inspiring and sobering. Indeed, they were humiliating in their revelation of our state of ignorance and unpreparedness. Our experience would do us little good; it related to airplanes of the kind pioneered by the Wright Brothers. We were entering an era of transonic and supersonic aerodynamics, of jet and rocket engines, and of missiles. These developments represented not a normal extrapolation of our aeronautical past but a sudden and magnificent leap into the future.

The technical field we were entering in 1946 was one of undeveloped disciplines, of still rudimentary research facilities; and one in which universities, many of which had been excluded from the classified technical developments of war, were not fully prepared to teach. We had entered an era in which a powerful nation could be brought to its knees without the enemy's setting foot on its soil, an era in which a single bomb could devastate a large city-and such a bomb, it was realized, could be delivered by a flying vehicle capable of great speed and range.

It was clear that jet and rocket engines offered the potential of greatly increased speeds and that the new concept of wing sweep opened the aerodynamic-design door through which this potential might be realized. The United States could not expect to be first in everything; indeed, we had been caught napping in the development of both jet and large rocket engines and had been beaten by the Germans in the use of large missiles and of wing sweep. The Nation was bent not merely on catching up in aeronautical affairs but in developing a commanding lead. This objective would cost real money, in amounts never before provided for aeronautical research. But the development of the atom bomb had so impressed everyone with the importance of science in national defense that the money would probably be forthcoming.

Both the military and the NACA recognized the long-range folly of having NACA devote all of its efforts to development testing while fundamental [120] research went begging. Even before the end of the war-indeed during the black days of the Battle of the Bulge-the military had suggested that NACA revert to fundamental research. 1 But the Bulge quickly faded and the suggestion was not implemented. With the war over, the military services were going to make sure that they would never again depend so heavily on NACA for development test work. They would have their own evaluation and test facilities and their own scientific advisory groups.

The Army Air Forces was particularly positive on these points and its position was aggressively pursued by General Henry H. Arnold and also by Major General Curtis E. LeMay, who had recently been put in command of a new Headquarters office of Deputy Chief of Air Staff for Research and Development. It certainly had occurred to the Air Force that its future and the whole pattern of its operations were in question when one airplane could carry the destructive power of thousands of B-17 or B-29 bombers. No longer would the emphasis lie in the production and operation of vast fleets of airplanes but rather in the development of advanced types of aircraft and the production of relatively small numbers. The logical course for a progressive Air Force thus led directly into aeronautical science and directly into competition with NACA. The intent of the Air Force to carve out new fields of endeavor for itself was bolstered when in July 1947 it was made an independent branch of the defense establishment.

To avoid unnecessary conflict among the several agencies then engaged in aeronautical research and development, NACA in 1946 proposed a National Aeronautical Research Policy which attempted to define the appropriate sphere of activity for each agency.2 In making this proposal, which was quickly accepted by all the agencies involved, NACA was more concerned about its relations with the military services than with the Civil Aeronautics Authority and the aircraft industry-the other agencies named in the Policy. The Policy indicated the function of NACA as being fundamental research in the aeronautical sciences and that of the military services, evaluation of equipment and exploration of military application of research results. The definitions provided by the Policy were, however, rather vague; the boundary it established between the spheres of NACA and the military services was not sufficiently solid to preclude transgression.

NACA continued to regard the support of the military as its principal role, but it was happy to return to fundamental research. Clearly its research must now be more fundamental and more scientific, and even a bit [121] more competitive. Some people in NACA looked upon fundamental research as the establishment of major principles which later could be elaborated and exploited through development. It was a strategic error, they felt- a reversal of proper form-to allow development work to be the guide for fundamental research programs. The same people believed that during the war NACA's stock of fundamental principles had been fully exploited and exhausted and that now, with the war over, it was in desperate need of replenishment.

Unfortunately, fundamental research cannot be legislated, cannot be turned off and on like an electric light. It requires the proper tools, of course, and the right environment; but most of all it requires men with a special inclination and training. Without the latter, one can throw the switch but the light does not come on.

The prerequisites for fundamental research were not wholly present at Ames, nor were they completely absent. Some, but not all, of the tools were available; the environment, owing to the disruptions arising from construction and war, had not yet reached the ideal that was potentially achievable at the Laboratory. The manpower picture at Ames encompassed a surprisingly wide spectrum of talents. The quality of the staff had suffered a little from the wartime necessity of hiring men "because their bodies were warm," but some extremely able men had come to Ames who might well have gone into private industry had it not been for the war.

The most notable features of the Ames staff in 1946 were, first, the nucleus of extremely competent men, and second, the general lack of knowledge about transonic and supersonic aerodynamics. Everyone was aware the Laboratory's work was rapidly becoming more scientific and was impressed with the necessity for training ("retreading," as it was called) the staff in the new disciplines. Arrangements were made with Stanford for the university to give a number of graduate-level credit courses at night in subjects related to transonic and supersonic aerodynamics. Inasmuch as most Stanford professors were not prepared to teach the new subjects-subjects that were developing day by day in the work of aeronautical laboratories-the lecturers were chosen from the few members of the Ames staff who were qualified.

The courses at Stanford were taken by those of the Ames staff who wished to bolster their basic scientific training and improve their abilities to carry on the work at the Laboratory. For men who had served during the war in the Navy contingent at Ames, the GI bill of rights provided the tuition for the courses attended at Stanford and elsewhere. A few such as Dean Chapman, Milton Van Dyke, and Jack Nielsen returned full time to their alma maters or to other universities to seek graduate degrees before reentering on duty at Ames. Thus, in the years following the war, a major effort in self-improvement was made by the Ames technical staff.



Drag benefit of sweep.

Drag benefit of sweep.


The postwar environment of the Ames Laboratory was affected by a number of technical developments around the world. R. T. Jones had developed his sweep theory at Langley early in 1945 and North American and Boeing were the first American companies having the courage to use it. It required courage, too, for sweep, although offering a tremendous reduction in transonic drag, introduced a multitude of problems for which answers had not yet been found in the laboratory.

In 1945 North American had under design the F-86, the FJ-I, and the B-45-all with straight wings. When the news about sweep came through from NACA and Germany, Ray Rice, Harrison Storms, and others at North American were torn with indecision over whether or not to change any of their designs to incorporate the new feature. It was probably undesirable to change the FJ-1 design because it was to be carrier based and sweep would greatly complicate the landing problem. And the use of sweep on the B-45 was perhaps too much of a gamble-after all, the use of jet power in a bomber was a big step in itself-and in any case the design of the airplane may have been too far advanced for any change of this kind to be feasible. But, now, the F-86: was not the gamble justified in this case? It was, they thought; so off came the straight wings and on went a set of wings that were swept backward a nice round 35°. The modification, of course, was not as simple as indicated; nevertheless the swept-wing F-86 flew in October 1947 and a year later set a world speed record 3 of 671 mph. It was a worthy successor to the P-51.

At Boeing the gamble was even greater. Boeing was in competition with North American, Convair, and Martin for a new jet bomber. George Schairer, Chief of Research at Boeing, had been one of the American group of scientific gleaners who had tailed our armed forces into Germany. He was well aware of the German work on sweep but its application to Boeing's new bomber, the B-47, was a matter not to be lightly undertaken. Sweep would [123] introduce many problems involving stability, control, aeroelasticity, flutter, strength and performance and no one yet had suggested how jet engines might best be mounted on swept wings. Fortunately, like North American, Boeing had a wind tunnel of its own in which these matters could be studied, but time was short and the work would have to be pressed The other companies in the competition were well advanced with their designs and, on the surface, Boeing seemed to be getting nowhere. Then late in 1947, after the other airplanes were already flying, Boeing came out with its revolutionary B-47 equipped with swept wings and a unique engine mounting. From that moment on, its competitors' airplanes were as obsolete as Noah's Ark.

With the advent of the F-86 and the B-47, fighter and bomber airplanes would never again be the same. Never again, for that matter, would commercial transport airplanes be the same. The courage of North American and Boeing designers paid off richly for their companies and for their country.

But the dread "sonic barrier" would not be breached, in level flight, by either the F-86 or the B 47. In 1944 the Langley laboratory proposed as a joint project for NACA and the military, the construction and testing of an experimental "research" airplane designed for transonic flight. The idea was approved by the military and thus was begun what was known as the "research airplane program." Late in 1944, the Army Air Force contracted with the Bell Aircraft Co. for the construction of the XS-1 (later X-1) research airplane. About the same time the Navy contracted with Douglas El Segundo for the construction of the D-558-1 research airplane. Both would be instrumented by NACA and would be flown by both NACA and service pilots at the airbase (later named Edwards Air Force Base) at Rogers Dry Lake-a lake commonly identified by the name of the bordering village, Muroc, Calif. NACA in 1946 established a group at Muroc to handle NACA's interests in the research-airplane program. This group was the nucleus of what in 1949 became the NACA High Speed Flight Research Station at Edwards:

The D-558-1 was a more or less conventional, jet-powered airplane, but the XS-1 was strictly a research vehicle. It was powered by a liquid-fuel rocket engine and was carried aloft for launching by a mother airplane. On October 14, 1947, with Air Force Capt. Charles Yeager at the controls, the XS-1 exceeded the speed of sound in level flight. The sonic barrier had at last been breached by a man-carrying airplane, albeit a very specialized research type of vehicle. An operational type supersonic plane was still a way off but, with the XS-1 flight, the longstanding psychological barrier to supersonic flight began to crumble. And before the mystery and magic of each 1.0 had completely faded, the pilots who first faced up to this bugbear of aviation were accorded heroic stature by the press.

In the past, conversations regarding aeronautical developments had...



North American F-86A.

North American F-86A.

Boeing B-47.

Boeing B-47.

X-1 in flight.

X-1 in flight.


[125] ....been concerned largely with man-carrying vehicles and most often with airplanes. Now, with increasing frequency, such conversations included the terms "rocket," "pilotless aircraft," and "missile." The last two terms generally referred to guided unmanned aircraft; and the first, to unguided vehicles carrying explosive charges. Wartime developments in this country had mostly been limited to rocket armament and to a few radio- or TV-guided glide bombs.

At the end of the war there was a tremendous surge of interest in rocket powerplants and guided missiles. This interest sprang in part from the revelation of German developments in these fields. A number of American companies launched into the design of guided missiles and soon demonstrated that the science and technology of missile design in this country were not far advanced.

In their development of large missiles of the V-2 type, the Germans were far ahead of everyone else. It was logical that the V-2 should be used in the United States as a stepping-stone for the development of our own rocketmotor and missile technology. Together with German missile scientists, many V-2 missiles were brought to this country. The missiles were studied by numerous organizations-in the west by the Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Army sponsored) and by North American's newly formed and rapidly growing Aerophysics Laboratory. The Aerophysics Laboratory built first a copy of the V-2 liquid-fuel rocket motor and then a series of improved versions. It also studied other missile design elements such as aerodynamics, guidance, and structures.

The V-2, fortunately, was a relatively short-range missile; but it opened the door for the development of larger, faster missiles that could span oceans. Indeed, as the war ended, the Germans were already building a missile (A-9) that would reach the United States. It is not surprising therefore that, in 1946, the Air Forces initiated Project MX-774, a design study of an intercontinental ballistic missile to be made by the Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corp. The specifications for the missile-5000-mile range, Mach 20 speed, 500-mile altitude, and high target accuracy-boggled the imagination.

A revolution in aeronautics certainly was at hand. The prospects facing aeronautical scientists had never been more exciting. But never before had the problems seemed so many or so complex. The work of Ames, of NACA, was certainly cut out. But the task was too great for NACA alone. It would also require the best efforts of other Government laboratories, of university and industry research groups. No longer would NACA be "the" Government aeronautical research agency as it had been in the past. For NACA the Work of the other research groups might be thought of as competition but, more realistically, it should be considered as needed support. The total effort would require vast sums of money; and having long been typecast as a [126] small agency, NACA was in a poor position to command large appropriations-immeasurably poorer than, say, the Air Forces.

Although 95 percent of the work of NACA had always been in support of the military, the congressional subcommittee from which NACA was required to seek its appropriations was not the one that also funded the military services. NACA solicited its funds from the Independent Offices Appropriations Subcommittees, which served a group of rather low-priority organizations such as the Battlefield Monuments Commission, the Civil Service Commission, the Public Housing Administration, the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the General Services Administration. Chairmanned by Albert Thomas, a zealous guardian of public funds, the House Independent Offices Appropriations Subcommittee sometimes seemed to people in NACA to lack appreciation for the national defense significance of NACA's basic research mission. This was a time when all Government agencies found it difficult to convince an immediate-results-minded Congress of the need for basic research. The subcommittee was particularly tightfisted when it came to providing funds for staff increases. Thus Ames (and NACA) at the end of the war, when the urgency of its work and the magnitude of its responsibility were greater than ever before, was required to reduce its staff by about 10 percent.4

This was the general environment in which the Ames Laboratory spent the first few years of the New Age of Speed.


1 During the Battle of the Bulge, according to the recollection of John Victory, General Arnold developed a feeling that the war might be prolonged for several years. Accordingly Arnold got the Navy to agree that NACA should restrict its ad hoc testing for the military and launch into basic research. The Bulge offensive, however, was quickly neutralized and the proposed plan was dropped.

2 See NACA 33d Annual Report 1947. A complete statement of policy and background was also given in a NACA Press Release Apr. 1, 1946, entitled, "Government and Aircraft Industry Concur on National Aeronautical Research Policy."

3 Welman A. Shrader, Fifty Years of Flight. Cleveland, Ohio: Eaton Manufacturing Co.

4 See app.A.