[1] The parent organization of Langley laboratory was the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Congress established the NACA in 1915 "to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight with a view to their practical solution." This establishment did not happen easily. It took years of active politicking by dedicated, well-connected scholars and government officers to grease the bureaucratic machinery for the creation of a new federal agency devoted to advancing the state of the art in aircraft design and operation. It also took a world war to convince a skeptical American public that aeronautics was not the province of cranks and dreamers. Finally, it even took a legislative contrivance to get the authorizing legislation through Congress.


Establishing the NACA


The idea to establish a national aeronautical organization having a central research laboratory had been discussed earnestly in April 1911 at the inaugural banquet of the American Aeronautical Society. During this meeting, several members called for the federal government to endorse the idea of creating a national aeronautics laboratory. This laboratory might be directed by the Smithsonian Institution, the members suggested. Whirling arms and other pieces of experimental equipment from Samuel Pierpont Langley's earlier aerodynamical laboratory lay dormant in Washington behind the castle building on the Mall; that lab could be expanded to include wind tunnels, shops, and instrument and model rooms. The prestige of the Smithsonian's secretary could foster the kind of cooperation among scientists requisite to the creation and proper maintenance of an effective advisory body.1

Forceful opponents killed the idea, however. Rear Adm. David W. Taylor, chief constructor of the navy, declared that the experimental model [2] basin at his Washington Navy Yard and the Engineering Experiment Station at Annapolis already performed aeronautical research. A civilian laboratory, Taylor charged, would duplicate military work at needless public expense. The admiral's unworkable alternative was for the government to assign all of its aeronautical research to the navy-a proposal not as odd then as it may seem today, considering the admixture of hydrodynamic and aerodynamic theory before 1920. But others also complained. Richard C. Maclaurin, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argued that the lab should be located at or near a university or technical school, according to the successful European example. Why not at his institute, he implied. Samuel Stratton, director of the National Bureau of Standards, also dismissed the idea of any leading role for the Smithsonian. He felt that his bureau could supervise an aeronautical research facility, just as the National Physical Laboratory in England oversaw the operations of the Royal Aircraft Factory.2

It was paradoxical that bureaucratic politics could stand in the way of creating an aeronautical research organization in America, the country where powered flight had been first achieved. The Wright brothers had made their pioneering first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December 1903. In the succeeding eight years, progress in American aeronautics had been wonderful, due largely to the magnificent work of the Wrights. The first truly practical passenger-carrying airplanes capable of three- to four-hour flights were developed during this short period. In 1909 the Wrights sold their Type A Military Flyer to the army, and the navy expressed interest in launching airplanes from platforms atop its ships. In 1911 Glenn H. Curtiss introduced the first practical seaplane, and the first transcontinental flight took place.

To those close observers of aviation who called for a central aeronautical research laboratory in 1911, however, the direction of aviation progress in the United States seemed "halting, haphazard, and fortuitous."3 They argued that despite the successes, the leaders of American government were still treating aeronautics as a passing fancy rather than as a new technology which would change the world. In comparison with chemical and electrical research programs, which were helping profits to soar at General Electric, American Telephone and Telegraph, Westinghouse, Du Pont, Eastman Kodak, and other American corporations, some solid aeronautical research projects had stalled shortly after takeoff. In early 1904 the regents of the Smithsonian had closed Samuel Langley's aerodynamical laboratory in response to public criticism stimulated by news reports of the ignominious crash of the professor's full-scale "aerodrome" into the Potomac River. Ironically, this crash had occurred nine days before the Wright brothers' [3] flight, a landmark success, which, in comparison with Langley's ridiculed failure, would be largely ignored by the American press. One reporter, either reacting ignorantly or playing to the ignorance of his reading audience, described Langley as "wandering in his dreams.....given to building castles in the air"; and a congressman from Nebraska charged, in a newspaper article entitled "Fads, Frauds, and Follies Cripple Nation's Finances," that the only thing the Smithsonian ever made fly was government money. 4 Before Wilbur Wright displayed his Flyer to astonished and enthusiastic European audiences in 1908, another pioneer American facility had shut down. Albert F. Zahm's wind tunnel at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., an impressive, uniquely instrumented machine for the study of airflow about dirigible hulls, was discontinued for lack of money.5

The situation in Europe was different. National traditions there caused scientific activities to be quickly institutionalized; thus governments convinced of the revolutionary importance of aircraft were able to build major aeronautical research programs before the start of World War I. Even as Wright toured Europe, Frenchmen studied resistance of various surfaces in free air at the new Central Establishment for Military Aeronautics at Chalais-Meudon, near Paris, and were about to begin experimenting in Gustave Eiffel's wind tunnels at Champs de Mars and Auteuil. The University of Paris authorized an "aerotechnical" institute in 1912 at St. Cyr. Across the Channel in 1909 the British prime minister appointed an Advisory Committee for Aeronautics with physicist Lord Rayleigh as president. This committee supervised the aeronautical work of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and the expensive new Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough. The Germans, in their tradition of highly organized applied scientific research, built their major facility at the University of Göttingen.

American aeronautics progressed more slowly than European because it had not yet managed to win the political support necessary for its national organization. Outgoing President William Howard Taft had appointed a commission in 1912 to investigate the sorry situation of American aeronautics, but the lame duck body accomplished nothing.6 The situation seemed to improve when, a month after the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson in 1913, the Smithsonian Board of Regents authorized the reopening of Langley's laboratory. Charles Doolittle Walcott, secretary of the Smithsonian, even presided over a meeting of "The Advisory Committee of the Langley Aerodynamical Laboratory" on 23 May 1913. Several distinguished men belonged to the committee, including Orville Wright, Albert F. Zahm, Samuel W. Stratton, Glenn H. Curtiss, Capt. W. I. Chambers, USN, and Brig. Gen. George P. Scriven, USA, plus representatives from various departments of government. Sixteen subcommittees were formed on paper. But a....



Samuel P. Langley and assistant Charles M. Manly, 1903


Left, Samuel Pierpont Langley A ) (1834-1906) had more reason to show confidence in his chief mechanic and pilot, bespectacled Charles M. Manly, than Manly did in the Smithsonian's distinguished scientist of flight. The Aerodrome crumpled into the Potomac River shortly after being catapulted from its position on top of a houseboat, not because of any problem with Manly's power plant design, but because Professor Langley's framework for the tandem wings was too weak. (National Air and Space Museum)


Langley Aerodrome, 1903



[5] ....congressional act of 1910, preventing executive agencies "from requesting the heads of departments to permit members of their respective departments to meet at the Institution and serve on an advisory committee," forced the board to disband the committee and reshut the door to the Langley laboratory. (The elite composition of the committee and the distribution of work among numerous subcommittees nevertheless presaged the first meeting of the NACA in 1915, as well as its subsequent approach to organizing its work. )7

Constant pressure from Walcott and like-minded men, the Progressive impulse for economy and efficiency in government, and, above all, the war in Europe, led finally to the creation of an advisory committee for aeronautics. On 3 March 1915, on its last working day, the 63d Congress passed a Smithsonian proposal to create such a body.8 Though the authorizing legislation slipped through Congress largely unnoticed, success still hinged on compromise. First of all, the Smithsonian proposed only to form a committee to coordinate basic aeronautical research already being done at existing facilities. By not creating a national laboratory, the legislation eased President Wilson's fear that such a facility would endanger American neutrality. The legislation did provide, however, that "in the event of a laboratory or laboratories, either in whole or in part, being placed under the direction of the committee, the committee may direct and conduct research." Second, the Smithsonian would not dominate the program. Rather, the act established a broadly representative unpaid panel, modeled after the British Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, consisting of "two members from the War Department, from the office in charge of military aeronautics; two members from the Navy Department, from the office in charge of naval aeronautics; a representative each of the Smithsonian ..., of the... Weather Bureau, and of the... Bureau of Standards; together with not more than five additional persons who shall be acquainted with the needs of aeronautical science, either civil or military, or skilled in aeronautical engineering or its applied sciences." Finally, success rested on legislative contrivance. A friendly House Committee on Naval Affairs attached the NACA's charter as a rider to a naval appropriation bill, greasing the machinery for quick approval. Congress appropriated $5000 to the NACA for fiscal year 1915.9



Research by Committee


The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was to be a rather simple government agency, as agencies went, with a unique composition and hierarchy. A Main Committee, composed of seven government and five [6] private members, would meet in Washington, D.C., semiannually-and occasionally more often-to identify key research problems to be tackled by the agency and to facilitate the exchange of information within the American aeronautical community. This body would be independent, not under any department, but reporting directly to the President, who appointed its members. These members would receive no salaries. A smaller Executive Committee of seven members, elected by ballot from the Main Committee for a term of one year, was to act as the real governing body of the NACA.* It would control "the administration of the affairs of the committee," exercise "general supervision of all arrangements for research, and other matters undertaken or promoted by the Advisory Committee," and collect aeronautical intelligence. It also appointed technical committees-in effect subcommittees, since the NACA itself was a committee-to provide expertise to the parent committee in one of the larger fields of aeronautical inquiry, such as aerodynamics, power plants for aircraft, or aircraft construction. These technical committees, in turn, created subcommittees of their own to give specialized advice. The Executive Committee also authorized the formation of special committees, usually ad hoc, to deal with problems even more specific-for example, the Special Committee on the Design of the Navy Rigid Airship ZR-1 (created in 1923). In later years, the problems giving rise to special committees were often more political or institutional in nature, as in the cases of the Special Committee on the Relation of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics to National Defense in Time of War, and the Special Committee on Future Research Facilities (both created in 1938). The composition of the NACA and its Executive Committee changed over the years; however, it should be obvious from the above description that any use of the term committee when referring to the NACA must be careful and precise.**

In theory, the committee system belonged to and represented a powerful intelligence network. Each member was chosen because he was thought to possess a special knowledge. Though early NACA policy made it clear that appointees from private life served as individuals and not as representatives....



The NACA Main Committee, 1920

The Main Committee of the NACA met in Washington, D.C., twice a year, the annual meeting being held in October and the semiannual meeting in April. Among the matters discussed at this semiannual meeting on 18 April 1929 was the forthcoming construction of a full-scale wind tunnel and a seaplane channel at Langley. Left to right: John F. Victory, secretary; Dr. William F. Durand; Dr. Orville Wright; Dr. George K. Burgess; Brig. Gen. William E. Gillmore; Maj. Gen. James E. Fechet; Dr. Joseph S. Ames, chairman; Rear Adm. David W. Taylor, USN (Ret.), vice chairman; Capt. Emory S. Land; Rear Adm. William A. Moffett; Dr. Samuel W. Stratton; Dr. George W. Lewis, director of aeronautical research; and Dr. Charles F. Marvin. (One member, Dr. Charles G. Abbot, was absent.)


.....of the institutions from which they came, it was hoped that each member-private or governmental-would come to NACA meetings with a briefcase of extraordinary personal and professional experiences, connections, sources of information, and reference points. Military officers would arrive with ideas provoked by recent intelligence reports, university professors with word of yet-to-be-published papers announcing new theories or experimental findings. By pooling their information, which was already high-level, and as a group assessing its practical effects for American aeronautics, NACA members would produce a new body of knowledge even better than the sum of its parts. They could then translate this knowledge into effective [8] technical advice and wise government research policy. In this synthesis, many would say, lay the genius of the committee system.

In practice certain committee members fell short of the ideal roles described. Over the years some members were in effect only honorary, some did not understand research, and some just did not put forth a good effort. On the whole, however, the committee system worked. (Decades later, the system was abandoned by NASA as anachronistic, but recently. there have been movements to revitalize it.)

During the Great War, the young NACA fulfilled its advisory function, but reached slightly beyond it. The Committee sponsored tunnel tests at the Navy Yard model basin, propeller tests at Stanford University, and cooperated in engine testing and instrument development by the Bureau of Standards. It evaluated aeronautics-related inventions for the War Department and elaborated a plan by which an Aircraft Production Board became a branch of the Council of National Defense. It helped the young aircraft industry in particular, coordinating meetings between manufacturers and the armed services, and bringing order to the procedure by which the military procured aircraft. The Subcommittee on Motive Power worked to stimulate production of a high-performance airplane engine. The NACA's greatest wartime success, however, may have been its mediation of the bitter and complicated patent dispute between the Wright-Martin Company and Glenn Curtiss over the wing-warping technique for lateral control.10 The cross-licensing agreement that resulted from the Committee's intercession facilitated immediate construction of more and better American combat planes. Critics complained, though, that it also reduced competition in the aircraft industry. At the least, the consolidation of patent rights sacrificed the interests of the small inventor to those of the big corporation.11

Until the NACA possessed its own technical staff, wind tunnels, and other experimental facilities, however, its contributions would be limited and its future dubious. One historian has charged that the wartime Committee spent most of its time and energy trying to carve out a permanent niche in American aeronautics and, in fact, paid little attention to calls for immediate service.12 Yet the NACA never hid its priority. Executive Chairman Walcott conceded in the Third Annual Report of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, 1917 that the preceding three years of activity had been "preparatory for the more effective service which the Committee hopes to render through its laboratory facilities.....and through the enlarged technical and scientific staff contemplated in connection therewith."13 Until then, employees could have only the haziest idea of what was expected of them. Leigh M. Griffith, a War [9] Department engineer detailed to the Committee in 1917 (who would become the first engineer-in-charge of the NACA's Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory) lamented that "until it is known what we are trying to do, it is impossible to formulate any system or build any organization for the doing of that thing."14 To fulfill the vision of its early proponents and founders-indeed, to complete that foundation-the NACA had to have its own laboratory.

The NACA had to defend its idea for a central laboratory against the old charge that its research activities would duplicate work at existing facilities. This bone of contention carried little meat, for the rival research institution usually in mind-the Washington Navy Yard model basin was small, largely devoted to development, and "backward in its use of advances in science and engineering."15 Charles Walcott advised the House Naval Affairs Committee in 1916 that safeguards against duplication were in place. If a problem before the NACA required investigation, he told the congressmen, informed Committee members like the army's chief signal officer (Brig. Gen. George P. Scriven, the first chairman of the NACA and ex officio head of army aviation) and the commander of the Navy Air Service (Capt. Mark L. Bristol) would ascertain whether that investigation should be carried out by the navy, the War Department, the Bureau of Standards, or the NACA laboratory.16

In defense of its campaign for a laboratory, NACA leaders also pointed out that no one in the government had assumed responsibility for civilian aviation research. Present needs bore on military preparedness, wrote General Scriven in the Annual Report for 1915, but "when the war is over there will be found available classes of aircraft and a trained personnel for their operation, which will rapidly force aeronautics into commercial fields, involving developments of which today we barely dream."17 The Committee needed to be ready with its laboratory to meet this coming civilian challenge.



Building the Laboratory


Lacking money to purchase and develop a site for its laboratory, the Committee circulated the idea of a joint civil-military experimental station. Interservice rivalry, however, defeated the original proposal to combine the aeronautical research of the NACA, the Weather Bureau, and the aviation sections of the armed forces. The idea was unwise at any rate if the Committee intended to maintain autonomy in the future. General Scriven advised his colleagues on the Committee to support a request for $50,000 from Congress, to be included as part of the fiscal 1916 navy budget, to build the lab. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels objected strongly.



Army Corps of Engineers survey party at Langley Field, 1916

A party from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers surveys the future site of Langley Field in the fall of 1916. (National Air and Space Museum)


Planning an enormous new naval research facility at that moment, Daniels may have been worried about increasing an already fat budget request.18 Regardless of motive, navy leaders never endorsed a joint laboratory and proving ground, although they did continue to participate in meetings about a mutual site, and did not obstruct the NACA's budget request.19 On 29 August 1916 Congress appropriated the full $87,000 asked for by the Committee, of which $53,580 was earmarked for laboratory construction.

The Committee's best chance to obtain land for the laboratory was to cooperate with an Army Air Service project. Congress had directed the War Department in 1915 to identify a military reservation to house an experimental facility with airfield. If that quest failed, the secretary of war could authorize up to $300,000 for the purchase of a new site. General Scriven, as head of army aviation, appointed a board of officers, including four members of the aviation section of the Signal Corps, to investigate locations for the proving ground, "agreeing to give the Advisory Committee the benefit of its inquiries and conclusions" and to make any land chosen available to it. The board considered such factors as climate, proximity to industry, accessibility, health of environment, availability of local mechanics and other technicians, character of land for experimental flying, and general location as affecting attack by enemy from land or water.20

[11] After considering 15 tracts of land (six in Maryland, four in Virginia, and one each in West Virginia, Tennessee, Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri), board president Lt. Col. George 0. Squier informed the NACA of the army's choice-1650 acres in Elizabeth City County, Virginia, just north of the town of Hampton.21 Following an inquiry to the surgeon general concerning health conditions in the Hampton area and an inspection of the site by one of its subcommittees, the NACA recommended that "this site be obtained for the use of the Government at as early a date as practicable."22 Stanford University professor William F. Durand, Scriven's successor in 1916 as chairman of the NACA, summarized the rationale behind the Committee's endorsement of the site for "Langley Field"*** in the Annual Report for 1916. Hampton, close to the Chesapeake Bay but reasonably immune from attack, stood in relative proximity to Washington, D.C. (an overnight steamer ride) and to the shipbuilding and repair industries at Newport News, Norfolk, and Portsmouth. Temperate but changeable climate, plus location alongside a tidal river, permitted experimental flying above both land and water and under nearly all conditions that aircraft would meet in service. The site, the NACA chairman believed, left the door open to a plan for a combined facility, sponsored by the War and Navy departments.23

Climate and topography seemed to bless the site, but shrewd Hampton businessmen sold it. Political boss Harry H. Holt, clerk of the court of Elizabeth City County; Hunter R. Booker, president of the Hampton-Phoebus Merchants' Association; Col. Nelson S. Groome, executive officer of the Hampton Bank; and Capt. Frank W. Darling, vice-president of two local banks and head of J. S. Darling and Son, the third largest oyster packer in the United States, saw a chance to revive a dying economy. while making a small fortune for themselves. This local elite brought Hampton to the government's attention.

Elizabeth City County had a population of around 5000 during World War I. Until a referendum in December 1914, a significant number of its citizens had earned their livelihood from the liquor industry. Then the...



Map of Tidewater Virginia, late 1930s

A Langley map of the Tidewater Virginia area from the late 1930s. The bridge at Newport News over the five-mile-wide James River, was built in the late 1920s. During World War I, U. S. highways 17 and 60 were primitive dirt roads.



River harbor at Hampton, Virginia, 1899.

The river harbor at Hampton, Virginia, 1899. (Courtesy of Vintage Virginia Photographs, Inc., Norfolk, Va.)


....Commonwealth of Virginia went dry. Harry Holt recalled the parching effects of Prohibition:


The cutting off of this source of support seemed certain to doom our community. In the city of Hampton alone, hundreds of families emigrated....., scores were made jobless, houses were empty and business generally suffered. 24


The most severe blow fell upon holders of real estate. Holt approached banker Groome, his closest associate, with news of the government's interest in buying land for an airfield, and assured him that there were "ideal sites in the plantations of the Sherwood, Lambington, Pool, Morefield, Blumfield and Shelibank properties." Quietly, so as not to attract attention to the speculation, the two proceeded to secure cheap 90-day options on large parts of these properties.25

Between Halloween and Thanksgiving 1916, a Hampton committee, spearheaded by Holt and Groome, met once at home and once in Washington with Squier's army site selection board. "We had just the right place to offer," Holt recalled in 1935, "and after repeated visits here, and agreements by us to build a railroad line onto the property, a price of $290,000 was finally agreed upon." The entrepreneurs were forced to sink $17,000 into some unexpected purchases of right-of-way-$3000 of which was defrayed by a stock subscription by the Newport News, Hampton, and Old Point Railway-but they had walked off with all but $10,000 of the $300,000 authorized by Congress and the War Department for the land purchase. (In....




Frank W. Darling, Hampton notable, and his family in front of their estate, ca. 1910.

Oyster baron Frank W. Darling owned one of the plantations, "Sherwood," sold to the federal government in 1916 for construction of Langley Field. In this photo from about 1910, Captain Darling prepares his wife and son for a carriage ride from their magnificent waterfront estate "Little England" along Hampton Roads. (Courtesy of Hampton Center for Arts and Humanities, Hampton, Va.)


....fact, the local men received $5645.31 more from the government in 1917 for an additional sale of land on Plum Tree Island in York County north of Langley Field. The army eventually used this marshy property for experimental bomb-dropping, demolition training, and target practice. During and after World War II, the NACA used it for drop-body tests.) A deed, executed 30 December 1916, transferred the land from "H. R. Booker" -the name of one of the Hampton businessmen involved-to the government.

The land gamble paid off handsomely for Holt and confreres, but it also benefited the entire northern shore of Hampton Roads, across from Norfolk and Portsmouth. A small group of men had made about $175 an acre on typical Tidewater fringe land-low-lying land next to shallow water. (By April 1918, in fact, when the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific Company concluded dredging a channel in Back River to allow larger boats to dock, it had deposited 1,791,320 cubic meters of fill onto Langley Field at a cost of half a million dollars.) The entire community cheered the venturesome heroes and the expected business boom, and many privately laughed at the government for having bought such a questionable bill of goods. The Newport News Daily Press announced a "fine Christmas for the entire Lower Peninsula ... the future of this favored section of Virginia is made." Public works-road, bridge, and electric railway construction-reverberated around Langley Field for many years to come. Prior to these projects, it....



High-altitude view of Langley Field, 1950s

A high-altitude view of Langley Field in the 1950s.


[16] ....had been "almost impossible to get.....to Newport News, or for that matter, to get anywhere" from Hampton.26 Many residents were not exactly sure what was going on at Langley Field (even today, many do not differentiate between air force and NASA activities there), but all recognized the life-giving energy of the thousands of federal dollars poured into their midst.



Construction Bottleneck


The chaos of war finally forced the army to abandon its plan to make Langley Field its aeronautical research and development center. Capt. John T. Sloan, building inspector for the War Department, arrived in Hampton on 8 February 1917-the day the Kaiser announced unrestricted submarine warfare within specified blockade zones and President Wilson broke diplomatic relations with Germany-to supervise field construction.27 American entry into the war a month later upset all schedules. Sloan and Capt. John 0. Steger, the original constructing quartermaster at Langley Field, went to France. The J. G. White Engineering Corporation of New York City, the major construction contractor, could not find enough laborers or obtain materials when needed. Too many bosses and too much division of responsibility exacerbated the confusion. To the War Department it seemed that the contractors put up any and every type of structure, without consultation with or authority from the proper government officials, the usual explanation for such structures being that they were only "temporary." Contractors, on the other hand, complained of work-order cancellations, red tape, and improper use of their equipment and supplies by soldiers.28

As soon as the United States had declared war, Britain and France hit their new ally with an immediate request for an air armada of 20,000 airplanes and 30,000 engines. In May 1917, the shocked War Department chose the British DeHavilland 4 as the multipurpose battle plane it would build under license; however, a commission headed by Col. Raynaul C. polling and Capt. Virginius E. Clark, sent to Paris by the secretary of war to consult with the Allies' aviation experts, determined that not only was the DH-4's standard engine underpowered for the airplane to perform as well as the U.S. Army wanted it to do, but that so too were all other existing American and European engines. The Boiling-Clark group identified the need for development of a new engine for the DH in June 1917, precisely the time that an initial layout plan for Langley Field was being finished by Albert Kahn's architectural firm of Detroit. Within the month, an engineering design of the new "Liberty" engine was ready. By 17 July 1917, the day the NACA broke ground for its first laboratory building at Langley....



Special aviation edition of Hampton Monitor

In July 1918, the Hampton Monitor published a special aviation edition featuring the construction of Langley Field.


[18] ...Field (and exactly one week before a 640.-million-dollar aviation bill became law, the largest appropriation bill for aviation in American history up to that time), Henry Ford and the Packard Motor Company had a prototype Liberty engine running.29

Had its dynamometer been ready, Langley could have tested the new Liberty engine. But, in fact, not one permanent building was completed on the post until the end of the summer. Construction of the flying field was an ordeal. One of the first soldiers to arrive there recorded that it was


Nature's greatest ambition to produce [for Langley Field], her cesspool, the muddiest mud, the weediest weeds, the dustiest dust and the most ferocious mosquitoes the world has ever known. Her plans were so well formulated and adhered to that she far surpassed her wildest hopes and dreams.30


One person who experienced the ordeal of constructing Langley Field was Thomas Wolfe. In his autobiographical novel Look Homeward Angel (1929), he described how young Eugene Gant (Wolfe in fictional clothing) spent the summer of 1918. From Norfolk


he went by boat once more to Newport News, and by trolley up the coast to Hampton. He had heard, in the thronging rumor of Norfolk, that there was work upon the Flying Field, and that the worker was fed and housed upon the field, at company expense.
In the little employment shack at the end of the long bridge that led across into the field, he was signed on as a laborer and searched by the sentry, who made him open his valise. Then he labored across the bridge.....staggered at length into the rude company office and sought out the superintendent.....


He was given a job as a personnel checker, a horse to ride, $80 a month, and room and board.


Three times a day he rode around the field to check the numbers of two dozen gangs who were engaged in the work of grading, levelling, blasting from the spongy earth the ragged stumps of trees and filling interminably, ceaselessly, like the weary and fruitless labor of a nightmare, the marshy earth-craters, which drank their shovelled toil without end. The gangs were of all races and conditions:.....part of the huge compost of America.31


Forty-six Langley workers died of influenza between September 1918 and January 1919. So severe was the epidemic that the undertaker who had the contract for burying the government dead was unable to secure enough coffins to take immediate care of the bodies.32

[19] The wartime Aircraft Production Board, needing an instant change in the miserable outlook for American aircraft manufacture, as well as a place to test the new Liberty engine, observed the infernal delays in construction near Hampton with great anxiety. Its representatives at the site reported sadly that it would be "a considerable time before the permanent construction at Langley Field [would] be in effective operation."33 The army had to respond. Pointing a finger at Langley as "the bottleneck of the aircraft program," the army dropped the plan to share an installation with the NACA and reassigned aircraft research and development to the engineering division at McCook Field, near Dayton, Ohio, operational since early 1917. Captain Clark returned from Paris to Washington in August 1917; in October he assumed command of the new aeronautical experimental station at McCook.

It took Albert Kahn's designers through the end of 1917 just to complete the first twenty buildings at Langley Field. But by then Liberty-powered DH-4s were flying regularly above Dayton; a few months later they were in transit to European airfields for action alongside the already battle-hardened fleets of Spads, Sopwith Camels, and Nieuports. Then the army changed its thinking about Langley's mission-the field was now to be used for training pilots, aerial photographers, and observers. After the Armistice in November 1918 (ironically, with the Liberty-powered DH-4 playing no major role in winning the war) construction at the field virtually ceased. The NACA was left in the lurch, "a disappointed tenant having little in common with its landlord."34 The laboratory would have to make its own way.

But the military did not want an independent NACA presence at Langley. In December 1916, the Committee had asked the army for an official designation of property on which it could build its own laboratory buildings, but the army failed to respond. Air Service commanders wanted to maintain control not only over Langley Field but over all experimentation at the field, including that conducted by the NACA. (Col. Thurman H. Bane, chief of the Air Service Technical Command, opposed the idea of dual military-civilian control so much that he recommended to the army's director of military aeronautics, in January 1919, that all NACA personnel at Langley Field "be subject" to his orders.) The Committee repeated its request three months later, but the army answered that formal assignment of land would be postponed "until [the] work of preparing Langley Field [was] in a more advanced state." The army used the same delaying tactic to ward off similar appeals made by the NACA in August 1917 and December 1918.35



LMAL administration building, 1920.

The one thing that impressed nearly every visitor to the original LMAL administration building was the mud that surrounded it.


After the war the military could continue to put off the NACA only so long. On 22 April 1919 Acting Secretary of War Benedict Crowell approved an Air Service recommendation that "the portion of Langley Field known as Plot 16 be definitely set aside for use by the NACA for their purposes in constructing laboratories or other utilities necessary in scientific research and experiments in the problems of flight."36 Although welcomed by the NACA, the army's offer was hardly generous. The NACA had already acquired Plot 16 unofficially in 1917. By the end of 1918, the Committee's first building on this land had been erected, and work there on its first wind tunnel had been started.37 And there was another problem with this tardy token of army generosity: it was too small to accommodate the building of any living quarters for NACA employees. Suitable housing close to work was for the NACA a major problem that only the military could help to remedy. In July 1919, after repeated requests from NACA chairman Walcott, the army did agree reluctantly to make primitive housing, along with heat, light, and telephone services, available to a certain number of civilian Langley employees. This arrangement, though unpleasant, was better than nothing, but it lasted only a short time. In the fall of 1919, based on a ruling by its judge advocate general, the army informed the NACA that it could no longer furnish Langley's civilian employees with housing or utilities.38

Isolation, mosquito bites, flu, inadequate housing, and poor relations with the military-where but Langley Field could things be so bad? This [21] question began to plague one NACA employee after another early in 1919 until feelings against the place festered into a mutiny. The NACA engineer in charge of building and construction, John DeKlyn, complained to Executive Committee Chairman Joseph Ames on 9 July 1919 that "Langley Field can never be an efficient or satisfactory place for the Committee to carry on research work." John Victory, NACA executive secretary in Washington, concurred and recommended that the lab be moved to Boiling Field, a base under construction in the District of Columbia. The Committee, in its Annual Report for 1919, formally requested congressional approval of the relocation from Hampton.39





The reluctance of Congress to change the lab's location and its cutting of the Committee's postwar budget requests forced the NACA to make the best of a bad situation. All too aware that army research at McCook Field was already showing signs of production (including the development of the Sanford Moss turbosupercharger, a siphon gasoline pump, several different leakproof tanks, and fins and floats for emergency water landings), the NACA pushed its workers in 1919 and 1920 to finish an atmospheric wind tunnel, dynamometer lab, administration building, and small warehouse.40 It hired an executive officer, and preliminary research began-a flight investigation of the lift and drag characteristics of the Curtiss JN4H Jenny airplane.41 The full-time Langley complement grew to eleven persons: four professionals and seven nonprofessionals. Meanwhile, an inquiry by the Committee revealed that Boiling Field had serious shortcomings of its own.42

Formal dedication of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory on 11 June 1920 guaranteed that the NACA would remain at Hampton. Ceremonies included an aerial exhibition highlighted by a 25-plane formation led by Brig. Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell, addresses by prominent military and civilian officials congratulating the NACA and giving it best wishes, and a tour and demonstration of the wind tunnel-all of which improved morale. A speech by Rear Adm. David Taylor, a former opponent of the laboratory, greatly bolstered NACA confidence. "One of the party, on approaching the wind tunnel building with me," Taylor asserted, "expressed the thought that the Committee had probably been a little lavish in its expenditures.....I do not agree.....as the building is only a fitting housing for.....the shrine to which all visiting aeronautical engineers and scientists will be drawn."43 An exaggeration in 1920 of the research significance of the NACA's original tunnel-an almost obsolescent design (see....



Wind tunnel No. 1, 1920

Langley's first wind tunnel, completed in 1920, was essentially a replica of a ten year-old tunnel at the British National Physical Laboratory.


...chapter 3)-Taylor's overstated prophecy was exactly what the pediatrician ordered for ailing, infant Langley laboratory.

Relations between the NACA and the Air Service seemed to improve immediately. Ten days after the dedication, Dr. Ames sent a warm letter to Col. William N. Hensley, the commanding officer of Langley Field, thanking him for courtesies extended the Committee at the ceremony. "The efficiency of our work at Langley Field," wrote Ames, "depends in the end to a great extent upon the degree to which you give us your support, and I feel that if your cooperation on June 11 was an indication of your attitude toward us, we can rest assured as to the future."44

In reality, however, things had not been settled. Colonel Hensley had in fact not even attended the dedication. A few days later, the LMAL senior staff engineer informed NACA headquarters that Hensley had prevented all but one of his officers from attending the ceremonies by issuing "specific orders to remain at their posts until after 5 p.m.," and had called a meeting on 15 June to discuss the "possibility of ousting the NACA from the field," promising "to do everything in his power to bring this about."45

World War I was over, but there were still many tough battles left for the NACA to fight.

* Until 1933, members of the Executive Committee "were chosen annually by vote of the Main Committee. The usual practice was to elect all members of the Main Committee who resided in the Washington area and who could devote a reasonable amount of time to Committee work. After 1933, all members of the Main Committee automatically belonged to the Executive Committee, but that did not greatly alter the situation. The Washington members-usually the government members-still dominated the Executive Committee." Alex Roland, Model Research: The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, 1915-1958, NASA SP-4103 (Washington, 1985), p. 424.

** The author will use the capitalized term Committee to refer to the NACA. The Executive Committee and the specific subcommittees will be so identified.

*** The idea to christen the new installation "Langley Field," in honor of Prof. Samuel P. Langley of the Smithsonian, appears to have originated either with General Scriven or Lieutenant Colonel Squier. On 13 October 1916 Scriven proposed Langley's name to Walcott, who answered the same day: "The suggestion is a fine one and we can bear it in mind when the field is obtained." In a speech to the annual meeting of the Aero Club of America, held in New York City on 12 January 1917, Squier declared, "If I have any influence in the matter, we are going to call that proving ground on the Atlantic 'Langley Field,' and I cannot conceive of any better monument to the memory of Professor Langley." The NACA's resolution to call its field installation "Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory" was approved at the semiannual meeting of the Committee on 22 April 1920.

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