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






People and Events


[177] BETWEEN 1950 and 1953 there were a number of important developments at Ames relating to personnel, organization, and events. On January 1, 1950, Russell G. Robinson joined the staff of the Laboratory as Assistant Director. He had had a part in the very first construction efforts at Ames but had then been called back to NACA Headquarters to assist S. Paul Johnston, Coordinator of Research, and Dr. Lewis. Robinson's work was particularly valued in Washington because of his technical experience, progressive viewpoint, and savoir faire. These important qualifications he brought to Ames together with a good understanding of just how the Headquarters office operated.

The rapport with Headquarters which Robinson provided was particularly valuable to a new laboratory located far from Washington. Ames people sometimes felt that Headquarters did not fully understand their special problems and occasionally showed favoritism to Langley. Ames was, of course, the junior partner of NACA's two aerodynamics laboratories, but....


Russell G. Robinson.

Russell G. Robinson.


Gerald E. Nitzberg (left) and Ralph F. Huntsberger (right).

Gerald E. Nitzberg (left) and Ralph F. Huntsberger (right).


....did not particularly like to have the distinction emphasized. When Headquarters would turn down an Ames research proposal because "we think Langley is shortly going to propose the same thing," it was not surprising that Ames people felt chagrin and some annoyance. In any case it appeared that Russ Robinson could provide a real service to Ames. At the time of Robinson's arrival, Carl Bioletti, who since 1947 had held the position of Assistant to the Director, was also made an Assistant Director. The two then shared the responsibility of managing the Laboratory's research programs.

William Kauffman, the expert on variable-stability airplanes, was detailed to Washington in April for a year; and in June 1950, Ralph Huntsberger was appointed head of the Unitary Plan design group at Ames. Reporting to John Parsons, Ralph would be responsible for the design and construction of the Ames Unitary Plan facility. At the end of July 1952, Dr. Dryden, Director of NACA, appointed Parsons Associate Director of the Ames Laboratory, a position which he was to hold while continuing to serve as Chief of the NACA Unitary Plan programs. Parsons discharged these heavy responsibilities with the quiet efficiency for which he was noted; he was ably supported by Gerald Nitzberg, who had been appointed his technical assistant. One of Nitzberg's assignments was the technical editing of all publications produced by Ames people to assure their accuracy and quality. Inasmuch as technical publications were the principal products of the laboratory, the commodity on which Ames performance was judged, their proper editing was regarded as a matter of great importance.

[179] Early in 1953 Don Wiley resigned from his position as Aeronautical Information Officer and was replaced by Daniel Wentz II. Dan's job was made a little easier by some softening of NACA's attitude toward public relations. But NACA still had a way to go. Also in 1953, Ames made certain changes in its organization to satisfy a desire of the Congress to establish a uniform organization for all Government agencies. One result was that the organizational units known as "Sections" became "Branches." Other elements of the change can be observed in the organization chart for 1953.

There were Inspections at Ames in 1950 and 1952, and three important technical conferences: the first was on Supersonic Aerodynamics in February 1950; the second, on Aerodynamic Design Problems of Supersonic Guided Missiles, in October 1951; and the third, on the Aerodynamics of High Speed Aircraft, in July 1953. The trend of the Laboratory's work was evident from the conference titles. There were also one or more conferences at Langley to which the Ames staff contributed.

An essential element in the establishment of a successful research laboratory is the creation of a favorable climate for research; this is one of the prime functions of the management group. In such an environment the research men are shielded as much as possible from administrative and political distractions, are provided the stimulating fellowship of other first-rate research men, are encouraged to exercise their ingenuity in attacking new problems, and are given the facilities and assistance which their work requires.

The very favorable research climate that prevailed at Ames was no accident. It was the product of a management group each member of which, from his own experience, was keenly aware of the needs of research. It resulted in a high productivity of useful information and it enabled the Laboratory to hire and hold good men who might otherwise have been attracted by the higher wages offered by industry.

In the top echelon of Ames management were Smith DeFrance, John Parsons, Russell Robinson, Carlton Bioletti, and Donald Wood. DeFrance's personal staff included Marie St. John, who for years had been his Administrative Assistant, and through whom some of his nontechnical orders were issued Also reporting directly to DeFrance were the Budget Officer, Ferril Nickle, and his assistants, Edward Schnitker and Walter Peterson.

DeFrance's operation of the Ames Laboratory was efficient, businesslike, and remarkably free of waste. In particular he encouraged and conserved research talent by shielding it from political pressures and unproductive routine and red tape. He never relinquished the reins of management but, as the Laboratory's activities grew in size and complexity, he leaned more heavily on the judgment of his senior staff. The explosive pressures which DeFrance had applied so freely during the period of construction and war were now applied less frequently and seldom to the more fundamental...



Organization chart of Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, July 1953.

Organization chart of Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, July 1953.


Edward H.A. Schnitker and Ferril R. Nickle

Marie W. St. John.

Left: Edward H.A. Schnitker and Ferril R. Nickle. Right: Marie W. St. John.


John DeFrance (left) and Parsons (right) confer.

DeFrance (left) and Parsons (right) confer.


[182] ....research efforts in which the Laboratory was increasingly engaged. Research men could look to him for a sympathetic consideration of their far-out schemes, for freedom to pursue their work unhindered, and for solid logistical support for their projects. Moreover, Smitty was particularly diligent in looking after the interests of the wage-board employees and that segment of the Laboratory staff which provided vital supporting services.

The excellence of DeFrance's work was recognized well beyond the bounds of the Laboratory. In 1952 he received an honorary doctor of laws degree from the University of California at Los Angeles; this honor was followed in 1953 by a doctor of engineering degree from his alma mater, the University of Michigan.

Of all the members of DeFrance's staff, Jack Parsons was the one upon whom he placed the greatest dependence. Jack, a quiet operator and no salesman, was widely liked and respected. He had demonstrated his solid abilities in research, in facility design, and in executive management. Jack was "The Builder" at Ames and perhaps knew more than anyone else of what the Laboratory consisted. His loyalty and level-headed dependability were traits which DeFrance much appreciated.

The others in the top management-Russ Robinson, Carl Bioletti, and Don Wood-contributed greatly to the prosecution of the Laboratory's mission by bringing to their posts good judgment, long experience, and, particularly in the case of Robinson, a fine sense of diplomacy-a characteristic frequently lacking in research types. Don Wood, originally Chief of Research at Ames, was a solid, experienced, and conservative engineer who was swayed but little by radical technical proposals and showed a magnificent resistance to being rushed into new things. Except for occasional flashes, his keen sense of humor was hidden behind a facial expression that was at least somber if not misanthropic.

Leadership at the division-head level was, for the most part, very effective though oddly diverse. The qualities just mentioned are well illustrated by a comparison of the leadership techniques employed by Harry Goett and Harvey Allen, two outstandingly successful division chiefs.

Harry Goett's name did not appear on any of the reports coming from his division and, except for providing advice and solid support, he did not himself become directly involved in carrying out a project: he was not in competition with his men. Nevertheless, Harry had a remarkable ability for guiding his men into new and useful lines of endeavor, for keeping them alert and moving ahead. One means that he used was his famous, or infamous, biweekly meetings for each branch in his division. These sessions were in the nature of inquisitions in which project heads were put on trial by Harry and their peers to ensure that nothing was lacking in the manner and method with which their projects were being conducted. The questions asked were very pointed and it was always with considerable apprehension....



Victor I. Stevens.

Steven E. Belsley.

Steven E. Belsley.


....that each project leader contemplated his "day on the block." But despite the rigorous environment to which the members of Goett's division were subjected, the esprit de corps and the effectiveness of the division remained continuously at peak level.

Harvey Allen's leadership was entirely different from Harry's but equally effective. Harvey, unlike Harry, became emotionally involved with his work and his compulsive urge to carry on research personally would brook no interference. No matter to how high an administrative post his good work condemned him, he always found time for research; paper shuffling was never more than a troublesome sideline. Harvey's originality and research brilliance, combined with an agreeable outgoing personality, made him a natural leader-an example which the younger men of his staff strove to emulate. In research his team lunged forward like a pack of beagles with Harvey baying in the lead. It was a marvelous sight. Of course Harvey looked nothing like a beagle. In respect to appearance, he resembled a king-sized cherub charging about among the wind tunnels.

At the branch-head level, there were many at Ames who contributed mightily to the research output of their groups but, in most cases, modestly reframed from including their names on the reports. This extremely deserving group included men like Bill Harper, Bob Crane, Vic Stevens, and Charlie Frick, all of whom had demonstrated leadership potentialities well beyond the requirements of their positions. Indeed Vic Stevens, who was the first head of the SSFF Tunnel Branch, was in September 1953 made Assistant [184] Chief of the High Speed Research Division under Harvey Allen. Similarly, there were men like Jack Stalder, Myles Erickson, Al Erickson, Steve Belsley, and, of course, many others whose names seldom appeared on reports but whose contributions were the life's blood of the Laboratory.

Steve Belsley, though not typical of Ames employees, was in many respects the classic example of a research engineer. His mind was keen, analytical, and intensely practical. He was also rough-edged, undiplomatic, and quite intolerant of technical fraud, political expedients, or devious approaches. When such appeared in technical conferences, his derisive laughter and snide, sotto voce comments jarred the decorum of the meeting. De spite his bad-boy tactics, Steve was well liked and was respected by his men to whom he gave his confidence and firm support-along with a few verbal arrows. An effective branch head, Belsley was a typical product of Harry Goett's school of research leadership.

Of such individuals as those described was the technical management at Ames composed. They, together with the others at the Laboratory, created a lively, open-minded environment in which research flourished.