Langley Personality, Formative Years


[23] In some ways, an institution seems to be organic. Its parts live and communicate, develop attributes of survival and adaptation, mature, age, weaken. In a way that cannot be demonstrated objectively, an institution develops a personality. As with a person, heredity and early environment are the critical influences. Because institutions manifest persistent stylistic or expressive traits, generations of Americans can easily and consistently discriminate between the distinct personalities of such similar organizations as the army and marines, IBM and Apple, the New York Yankees and New York Mets, or the University of California-Berkeley and Texas A&M.

Most people involved with American aeronautics between 1917 and 1958 saw a distinct personality in Langley laboratory. Langley's most striking physical feature was its unique collection of wind tunnels, many of which were of unprecedented design and capability. To a few observers, Langley's tunnels might have looked like huge, ungainly, wormlike creatures, washed ashore perhaps after a battle of primordial monsters in the nearby tidal river. But the tunnels were no less fascinating to those whose gaze was less imaginative. Some tunnels might have looked only like big warehouses with jointed appendages and rounded corners, but they were all in fact complicated mechanized marvels, national resources, great and powerful monuments to the modern age.

The impression that stuck in the minds of people who knew Langley best, though, was not only that of the wind tunnels, as impressive as they were, but also that of the human beings who built and operated them. In the 1920s and 1930s, Langley researchers earned an international reputation for finding practical solutions to urgent aeronautical problems. They did it largely through a careful management of technical and bureaucratic details-management which, among other things, turned individual talents into team capabilities and balanced the requirements of laboratory self-sufficiency with those of responsiveness to clients' needs. It was the [24] overall research environment that shaped the perception of most visitors to Langley. Where else but in this tremendously interesting place, most visitors thought, could one find dozens of government employees working so energetically, demonstrating their equipment with such extraordinary pride, and discussing experimental results with outsiders so openly?

The evolution of the Langley personality over the course of the two decades between the world wars is the subject of this chapter.




A committee is better suited to giving advice than exercising control. As the NACA changed from a solely advisory and coordinating body, the need for an executive office staffed by full-time civil servants became clear. Chairmen Charles Walcott and Joseph Ames recognized from the start that someone had to be on the job for day-to-day business in Washington, and that someone had to take charge of Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton.1

The two individuals who first took firm control of routine NACA affairs were John F. Victory and George W. Lewis. More than anyone else at NACA headquarters, these men left their lasting, if contrasting, impressions on Langley. Needing an office clerk, the Committee hired Victory as its first employee in June 1915, only three months after congressional approval of the enabling act. In fact, Victory had been doing some NACA paperwork earlier as secretary to Committee member Holden C. Richardson, officer in charge of the experimental basin at the Washington Navy Yard; Born in New York City in 1892 and orphaned early, Victory had worked continuously and indefatigably from boyhood. He began his federal service career as a messenger in the Washington patent office at age 16, studying shorthand and typing at a night school (which he later bought and operated). At 18, he recorded proceedings of courts-martial and courts of inquiry for the navy. To help support his younger sisters, he earned extra money on his annual leave days recording congressional hearings. While working for Richardson, he became familiar with some of the basic principles of aeronautical research and cultivated a finesse in public relations. He took a keen delight in showing lady visitors around the Yard, taking them into its wind tunnel, shutting the door, and turning on the breeze.2 Victory's first task after going on the NACA payroll (at $1200 a year on 22 June 1915) was handling requisitions from NACA contractors, depositing them with the bureau of supplies and accounts. The secretary's lean and tenacious constitution mirrored that of the upstart organization he was joining.




John F. Victory

John F. Victory (1892-1974) was the NACA 's first employee and the only executive secretary it ever had.


George W. Lewis, on the other hand, was a portly, relaxed, college educated engineer from a secure family living in Ithaca, New York. He became executive officer of the NACA in November 1919-he was 37-and director of aeronautical research in July 1924. In both capacities, Lewis was subject to general research policies and budgets set by the Committee, which sometimes also issued instructions on specific projects. His responsibility was to implement these policies and report results directly to the Committee. He supervised the preparation of technical papers for publication and their distribution to users in the military services, industries, universities, and various government departments. His hard work, great discretion, and shrewd combination of modesty and forcefulness enabled him to win the confidence and blanket support of most members of the NACA. Over the years, Lewis maintained a happy and successful relationship with them even while criticizing some of their policies and implementing many of his own plans independently. A 1910 master's graduate in mechanical engineering from Cornell University, he possessed considerably more technical competence than John Victory. He had taught engineering at Swarthmore College for seven years (1910-1917), done research on superchargers at the Clarke-Thomson Research Foundation in Philadelphia during the war, and first served the Committee in 1918 as a member of the Subcommittee on Power Plants.3

George Lewis's ability to befriend and influence politicians and to circumvent bureaucrats was another of his assets. Originally, the Committee had meant to install him in an office at Langley Field, but Lewis-thought it more effective to manage "his boys" from Washington, where he could....



George W. Lewis

George W. Lewis, director of research for the NACA from 1919 to 1947.


...deal with admirals, generals, and congressmen-spending long hours in conference in the back rooms of the Army-Navy and Cosmos clubs-and still be only an overnight steamer ride, or 90-minute airplane flight, from Hampton. He subscribed to the notion that a little distance between himself and his Langley staff gave the researchers an important sense of freedom and autonomy, while his almost weekly visits to the laboratory and careful daily communiqués kept him on top of all the important operations. A warmly gregarious and charismatic man, Lewis's protective approach to laboratory administration suited both his personality and the NACA's frequently precarious public situation. For his men at Langley he acted as benevolent guardian, making sure that they did not get involved in things [27] that damaged the integrity of the Committee's work and cut their own throats. In return, Lewis demanded loyalty. Some say he demanded it above all else.4

Lewis's attitude toward organization charts illustrates one formative influence on Langley's personality. Once in the 1930s a certain young Langley personnel officer could not find an up-to-date chart of the laboratory. So, since he had taken a course in industrial engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, he drew one up and took it in to show the Langley engineer-in-charge. It was not a very elegant chart, only some boxes with the names of people in them, but it was the young man's opportunity to show the boss that he had a little something extra to offer. The personnel officer had no more than started to explain the chart when George Lewis arrived from Washington for a routine visit. A man of great dignity and presence, Lewis could assume a formidable appearance, and he was not above using it to intimidate or coax his researchers. On the other hand, he was also the type of man who could say "No" and make you feel he was doing you a favor by rejecting your idea. The young man naturally stood up and tried to excuse himself from the meeting. The director told him to sit down and carry on with what he was doing. In fact, Lewis soon took a look at the chart and turned to the employee and said, "Son, do you know what they do with boxes?" "No, sir," the young employee answered. "They bury people in them," said Lewis.5 (An ironic note to this story: George Lewis would reject one last box. After his death in 1948, his body was cremated and the ashes were scattered over Langley Field.)

Of course, George Lewis knew that any organization had to have structure. In fact, Langley had provided NACA headquarters with organization charts from the start. The charts helped the Washington office to conceptualize and describe laboratory activities, prepare budgets, and write job descriptions for the civil service. Part of Lewis's objection to charts may have been political. A private and protective director who ran a tight ship and remained extremely sensitive to the external forces affecting the NACA, he viewed a chart as a potential wedge entering his operation. If published, a chart could show outsiders where to enter and whom to get to promote their pet interests. In the hands of opponents, it might also serve to undermine the cause of the NACA. In 1936, for example, Lewis warned a friend in Congress who was involved with a Brookings Institution study of the organization of the federal government that


it is rather difficult to evaluate the importance of the different organizations purely from a paper standpoint, and I am quite sure that the analysis of the Government organizations will be made entirely from statements and [28] organization charts rather than from an intimate knowledge of the value of each organization. The difficulty lies in the fact that it is almost impossible to put everything into an organization chart.6


Another part of Lewis's distaste for organization charts was managerial. He wanted to ensure research leeway by encouraging his staff to cooperate irrespective of nominal boundaries. When he visited the lab, he often held informal meetings where junior engineers could meet with section heads, division chiefs, and even the engineer-in-charge, to exchange ideas without fear of overstepping formal rank.

This democratic practice had a liberating effect on the staff. Even in the lunchroom, the newest members of the staff could share their ideas with veterans by drawing curves, sketches, and equations in pencil on white marble-top tables. Kitchen attendants wiped away evidence of the lunchroom conversations at the end of the meal, but not until after freewheeling inquiry and expression had run their course, been postponed until noontime tomorrow, or carried over for the walk back to office, tunnel building, or shop.7

The earliest organization chart of "Langley Field Station" appeared 11 June 1920, the day of the Langley dedication ceremonies. A draftsman prepared it with standard engineering lettering. The senior staff engineer and the chief physicist, according to the chart, were of equal rank. The Executive Committee in Washington considered the lab's administrative load light enough for Lewis to handle from Washington with a minimum of clerical staff at the lab, and with no on-scene, overall leader there at all. Perhaps such an in-house executive might have implied a degree of independence that the Executive Committee was not yet ready to acknowledge.

The matter of the NACA field executive, his role at Langley, and his relationship to the Washington office had had a troubled history before June 1920. George Lewis had split top research authority at Langley between the senior staff engineer and chief physicist earlier in the year after the stormy departure of John DeKlyn, engineer in charge of buildings and construction. Like Griffith, the first engineer-in-charge, DeKlyn had been employed by the NACA originally in Washington, as a draftsman, before moving down to Hampton. Three years of thunderous construction headaches-aggravated by the general nastiness of life and work at the field during World War I-prompted DeKlyn to campaign in 1919 for moving the NACA facility to Boiling Field. Chronic jousting with the Committee's efficient if fastidious secretary, John Victory, over such petty administrative details as the mechanics of submitting travel vouchers, completely soured his...



First LMAL organization chart, 1920

First organization chart of the LMAL, 11 June 1920. (See also appendix F.)



....taste for the job. (Some routine correspondence between DeKlyn's staff and Victory's had been mismanaged, and Victory concluded that the Langley staff showed a lack of "courtesy and cooperation" in righting the matter. So the bureaucrat undertook to lecture DeKlyn on interoffice etiquette, even though DeKlyn, an engineer in the professional ranks of the civil service, was above Victory in both salary and prestige.) "Not about to be dictated to by a pompous place-filler in Washington," DeKlyn resigned in February 1920, preempting his dismissal by only a few days.8 Bureaucratic bickering aside, DeKlyn was a draftsman and a construction engineer, and not a man to assist George Lewis in directing a comprehensive program of aeronautical research.

In 1920 Leigh Griffith, a 39-year-old mechanical engineer from California, became the senior staff engineer. The NACA had hired him some three years earlier as a "technical expert," upon the recommendation of its chairman, William F. Durand, professor of mechanical engineering and aeronautics at Stanford University. A power plants man, Griffith possessed little capacity to direct aerodynamic study. At Langley, his senior rank rested on his age, experience, and ability to manage the then-critical development of a high-performance aircraft engine, especially the testing of superchargers and fuel injection systems. The post of chief physicist was temporarily vacant in June 1920. Edward P. Warner, a Ph.D. in physics who lectured on aeronautics at MIT, his alma mater, had just left Langley....



Engineer-in-charge Leigh M. Griffith and others, 1923

Leigh Griffith, Langley's first engineer-in-charge, far right, receives, from his immediate right to his far right, visiting NACA members William F. Durand, John F. Hayford, and NACA secretary John F. Victory in front of the LMAL administration building in 1923.


...for a summer tour of European aeronautical facilities. Warner had commuted to the Hampton facility for brief stints since early 1919 to oversee the Committee's preliminary flight research programs and design of its first wind tunnel.9 He returned to MIT full time in the fall of 1920 as an associate professor, and another graduate of the prestigious school, Frederick Norton, became Langley's chief physicist. Norton was at something of a disadvantage in dealing with the senior staff engineer, for Griffith was 15 years older, had served the NACA in Washington, and was a friend and engine-research colleague of George Lewis. Norton, on the other hand, knew aerodynamics. He could also claim to be the NACA's first permanent employee at Langley Field, having arrived there in the autumn of 1918.10

By the time Langley produced a second organization chart in October 1923, the Executive Committee had already named Griffith the "Engineer-in-Charge."11 He received the position (which paid the lab's highest annual salary, $4800) in large part because he had taken more executive initiative than had Norton and had formally communicated to the Washington office detailed plans as to how Langley should be organized and managed. Griffith managed a fully operational lab that had grown both vertically and horizontally since 1920 and included 5 working divisions,...



Second LMAL organization chart, 1923

Second organization chart of the LMAL, October 1923. (See also appendix F.)


....17 sections, and some 60 employees. For the next two years he generally maintained favor with both his staff and NACA headquarters by restricting personal research supervision to his own field of technical competence, engine development; by virtually keeping his hands off the work of the aerodynamics sections; and by effectively handling interoffice relations with Victory. 12

During 1925, however, Griffith too succumbed to the rigid bureaucratic discipline of the NACA executive secretary. A dispute with Victory over correspondence (over the writing of letters deemed by Victory "unnecessary" and lacking in "etiquette") precipitated a nasty exchange of even less necessary and polite letters. Victory sought to end the matter with a letter [32] to Griffith dated 19 March 1925: "In the further interests of economy and efficiency in correspondence, it is directed that argumentative matter, unnecessary matter, and impertinent or irrelevant matter be eliminated from official correspondence in the future." Griffith responded in a handwritten note: "Suggest that you consider the points mentioned ... and rewrite your letter with them in mind." Victory, tough as steel when it came to paperwork, made the note a matter of official record. Finding Victory's attitude "good evidence of ignorance," Griffith soon requested an extended leave of absence, ostensibly to devote himself to pressing family business in California. One Langley employee remembered long after the episode that the Washington office had informed Griffith before his leave began that he could not return to the NACA. Twenty-nine-year-old Henry J. E. Reid, a 1921 graduate in electrical engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute who was in charge of Langley's instrumentation research and development, succeeded Griffith as engineer-in-charge. Reid remained at the helm of Langley lab until his retirement from NASA in 1960.13

Henry Reid survived for so long-unlike DeKlyn and Griffith-in part because he always understood the idiosyncrasies of John Victory and abided by the secretary's insistence upon a centralized correspondence system. Less than a year after Griffith's departure, Reid instructed Langley secretaries to send


no letters directly to the Washington office from anyone excepting [Langley Chief Clerk} Mr. [Edward R. "Ray"} Sharp or myself. Anyone wishing to communicate with the Washington office will do so by preparing a memorandum for forwarding by myself or Sharp or shall prepare a letter for my signature. 14


Employees carried out this close-to-the-vest policy for as long as Reid and Victory shuffled papers between Langley and Washington; that is, for the rest of the NACA's history. Outgoing correspondence was reviewed and revised up through the division level until sanctioned in its final form by the office of the chief of research or its equivalent; then it was signed by the engineer-in-charge. Letters could be taken off the premises only with approval, and no copies could be made without the approval of the head of the lab or his designated agent. Incoming letters to individual researchers were routed directly to them, but only after being opened by the mail clerks. Copies of these letters were made for central files and for distribution to top researchers and research managers in the relevant technical fields both at Langley and in Washington. New personnel discovered that "we don't say that" or "we don't say it that way here at Langley." NACA correspondence policy was so strict that some people worked at the laboratory for 30 or...




Administrative office, 1927

Langley administrative office, 1927.


....40 years without ever sending a work-related letter directly to an outside address.15 Similar regulations restricted telephone calls.

Despite the constraints Victory obligated him to impose on the laboratory, Reid was considered a model supervisor by most thoughtful employees. He usually did not mind qualified personnel going around him with their ideas to Washington, and when he did mind, he did not object in a way that made enemies. Perhaps Reid's greatest strength was his willingness to let young researchers be themselves; he did not try to make them all fit the same mold. This was an essential leadership quality for the man in charge of Langley, the acknowledged center of American aeronautical research in the late 1920s and 1930s, where talented, highly motivated researchers seeking national and international reputations in science and technology needed elbow room in order to produce the results wanted by both the NACA and its many clients. With temperamental individuals rocking the boat for resources, respect, and reputation, Reid deserves great credit for keeping Langley on an even keel.

Because employees viewed Reid as a model supervisor, his (and Victory's) strictness in regard to correspondence was duplicated up and down the organizational line. Nearly all correspondence between sections, for example, required the section head's signature. One section head extended....



Conference of division chiefs, 1929

LMAL division chiefs confer with the engineer-in-charge in April 1929. Left to right: E. A. Myers, Personnel Division; Edward 1?. Sharp, Property and Clerical Division; Thomas Carroll, Flight Test Division; Henry J. E. Reid, engineer-in-charge; Carlton Kemper, Power Plants Division; and Elton Miller, Aerodynamics Division.


....the policy so far as to list himself as an author on a majority of the technical reports from his research group, apparently believing that routine suggestions and reviews of reports justified the claim of authorship.16

The system of prepublication editorial review that George Lewis originally instituted for technical papers seems to have been equally strict. Theoretically it worked as follows: After a researcher at Langley had finished a rough draft of a technical paper, an editorial committee-consisting of three or four members of the Langley staff-met to offer constructive criticism of its accuracy, soundness, and clarity. The chairman of that committee-who did not have the authority to kill a report, although his power was tantamount to that if he was a man of real prestige-routed his appraisal of the paper through the author's division chief, stating whether the author had revised it in accordance with the suggestions of the committee. When the report finally reached the editorial office, its content had been rigorously checked and its form properly manicured. All preliminary copies of the paper were collected from editorial committee members and usually destroyed to prevent any use of unrevised work. In selected cases, the laboratory then circulated copies of the paper to members of the concerned NACA subcommittees for further suggestions for revision. After 1941 Langley also sent copies to its sister labs in California and Ohio for comment. Typically, the author received his paper back from reviewers several times in the organization's effort to ensure the validity and credibility of its research publications.




First page of a typical NACA report, 1934.

First page of a typical NACA report, 1934.


[36] In practice, however, the system was less strict than in theory. Compliance with reviewer comments varied greatly, depending on the author's inclinations and the attitudes of the editorial committee chairman. Rarely did an editorial committee reconvene, which meant that members other than the chairman seldom saw either the outside comments or the revised report prior to its publication. Moreover, comments from other labs generally had little effect on the finished product. According to one Langley veteran, it was easy to give these comments, which usually came in weeks after the editorial committee meeting, "a polite weasel-worded brush-off." 17

Research policy was in fact quite lenient. According to written instructions, Langley was supposed to have a research authorization, or RA, signed by the Executive Committee chairman for each of its investigations; but, in reality, approval of a research idea was very often just a formality. The Washington office turned down a Langley concept rarely: "Any scheme for research that survived peer discussion [at the lab] and gained section and division approval was likely to be implemented." Sometimes an engineer even went ahead with an idea without formal approval. George Lewis and Henry Reid looked the other way from this "bootlegged" work in the early days because they understood that it sometimes produced as much of value as did the best-prepared programs. Furthermore, the NACA worded its initial RAs using vague general terms like "similitude testing," "controllability testing," or "tests on wings," and kept authorizations operating as long as possible. This practice allowed researchers at Langley the flexibility to do almost anything they wanted under the umbrella of the formal program.18

When NACA management was not sure of the urgency of research in a new field or special subject, it went only so far as to give a few of its more talented personnel the freedom to educate themselves in it, to teach its basics to colleagues, and perhaps even to build simple, low-cost experimental equipment. This happened several times at the laboratory especially before World War II changed research priorities-and sometimes without the approval, or even the knowledge, of headquarters.

After returning from the Volta Congress on high-speed aeronautics in late 1935, for example, Eastman Jacobs, one of the lab's most brilliant section heads, decided that Arthur Kantrowitz, a young physicist from Columbia University, could contribute the most to the NACA by studying the principles of supersonic flow. Jacobs made this decision on his own, in defiance of a cautious NACA management stance against supersonics. A few years later, after both men had concluded that there was no physical prohibition of supersonic flight, Jacobs gave Kantrowitz an open job order to design a small supersonic wind tunnel. With the help of engineers in Jacobs's section, Kantrowitz finished this job successfully in less than....



Example of an NACA research authorization (RA), June 1930.

Example of an NACA research authorization (RA), June 1930.



Tom Collier holding buzzard, 1932.

Stuffed seagull on carriage of towing tank, 1932

Langley old-timers refer to unauthorized testing as "bootlegging." Some of their stories about bootlegged tests are apocryphal, however. According to one of these tall tales, a group of employees wondered out loud during a lunchroom conversation in 1932 about the aerodynamic characteristics of some of the birds that flew over Langley. One of the men who took the subject most seriously, Tom Collier (left), shot a buzzard, and froze it with its wings outstretched for unauthorized testing in the NACA towing tank. The test results indicated that the frozen bird could not fly because it was inherently unstable (birds are, in fact, unstable, but this has never stopped them from flying)! The teller of the tale never mentions, however, that tests of soaring birds in the NACA tank had been proposed by Victor Lougheed of the U.S. Navy Bureau of Aeronautics. Moreover, in May 1982, the Virginia Commission of Game and Inland Fisheries had issued a permit for Lougheed "to possess and transport for use in connection with flight investigations, ten sea gulls." At right, one of these gulls is being tested on the carriage of the towing tank.


....18 months. An unauthorized order from Jacobs thus led to the pioneering 9-Inch Supersonic Tunnel for the NACA, one of the first supersonic tunnels in the United States.19

Special independent studies like those done by Kantrowitz in supersonics during the late 1930s were permissible at Langley as long as they were not too exotic, did not require too many agency resources, and did not draw adverse public attention. One study that the NACA ultimately did cancel for being too far-out involved the first American experiment designed to achieve thermonuclear fusion. Kantrowitz and Jacobs read in a newspaper in 1938 that Westinghouse had just bought a Van de Graaff generator. The two men knew that this huge electrical device, which produced [39] sparks several feet long, was being used in atom-smashing experiments, so they suspected that Westinghouse had bought the machine to begin exploring ways of making nuclear power a reality. While discussing the news item (which led both of them to study the works of Hans Bethe), Kantrowitz and Jacobs got the notion that if a very hot plasma (e.g., an electrically neutral, partially ionized gas) could be confined magnetically, a fusion reactor could be built. Jacobs, who had good rapport with NACA headquarters because of his promising work on laminar-flow airfoils (see chapter 4), managed to get $5000 from George Lewis for construction of a big aluminum torus with a coiled magnetic device whose purpose would be, Jacobs said, to study the potential of atomic power for aircraft. Using the drive motor of the Variable-Density Tunnel as the power supply for the magnetic field, away went Jacobs and Kantrowitz, trying to excite the plasma to a high enough temperature to produce X-rays. But before they could achieve the necessary temperature, Lewis came by the laboratory one day and happened upon the fusion apparatus. Knowing that nonaeronautical experimental equipment of so radical and dangerous a nature was not appropriate for the NACA, Lewis canceled the project on the spot. Jacobs and Kantrowitz* both considered the cancellation a tragedy since experiments with the torus had led to several important discoveries.20

The personality, long-term directions, and aspirations of an organization like NACA Langley are seldom revealed by formal policy statements. Goals emerge more often as a set of constraints defining acceptable performance. The NACA correspondence and editorial review policies clearly demonstrate the influence of the strictness of John Victory and George Lewis on the development of the Langley personality. Neither wanted anything [40] imperfect to come out of the laboratory and be associated with the Committee. Victory wanted all routine business conducted by the book, down to the smallest detail of epistolary style and grammar. Lewis wanted published reports to be accepted as holy writ. S. Paul Johnston, former editor of Aviation (1931-1940) and an employee at NACA headquarters (1940-1942), remembers that Lewis "was so afraid that he would get caught with a mistake in a report that wind tunnel results-all research results-would be hung up down there at Langley until all the i's were dotted and t's crossed and he was damn sure that the results were what they said." Russell G. Robinson, a more veteran headquarters employee, argues that this was not fear on Lewis's part, just extreme insistence on technical integrity. Lewis recognized that only the most highly respected scientific and technical papers could buttress the Committee's public positions.21

One can debate the long-term value and significance of such strict controls on the laboratory. They were tough, time-consuming, and occasionally traumatic. Victory's bureaucratic tenacity cost the NACA two senior engineers ( DeKlyn and Griffith), but their resignations caused barely a ripple in the flow of research. Lewis's editorial policy may have prevented the prompt publication of an occasional paper on the ground that the lab would "at some later date in the indefinite future be able to check and amplify the work and so make a more valuable report."22 In terms of institutional behavior, the policies of Lewis and Victory, the long-lived father figures of the lab, seem to have promoted a certain conservatism, a caution against prematurely announcing research results, and a reluctance to embrace for publication research writings and ideas from other than the NACA's rigorously scrutinized sources.

On the other hand, in the constraints imposed upon Langley there was freedom. Lewis's attitude about organization charts, for instance, permitted researchers in the field to communicate through informal "shadow" networks. His editorial policy heightened self-confidence in the NACA product and method of quality control and freed researchers to work creatively on novel ideas without the fear of preliminary reports building up too much industry anticipation of and pressure for future advances. Victory's centralized correspondence system, as instituted in Henry Reid's offices, freed employees from bothersome paperwork. In sum, the organization exhibited throughout its history a delicate blend of careful bureaucratic constraint with research freedom.


[41] The Family


The most vital arena for aeronautical research was the human mind, not the wind tunnel. No facility could substitute for talent and creativity. Without employing enough individuals who possessed "knowledge of the existing state of aerodynamics, experiences in the study of its fundamental problems, and who combine[d] engineering training with profound mathematical knowledge, the rare gift of originality, and demonstrated ability in the conduct of research," the best NACA leaders understood that Langley could not accomplish its assigned duties no matter how good the management.23

The first thing that needs to be remembered about the Langley staff in the early years of the NACA was that it was very small. The total complement did not reach 100 until 1925, and the complement of research professionals did not reach that number until 1930 (see the table below). Research members of the various aerodynamic sections numbered only 23 in 1927: 12 in flight research, 6 in the atmospheric wind tunnel, 4 in the propeller research tunnel, and 1 in a prototype ice tunnel. The power plants sections had 16: 7 in engine research and 3 each in fuel injection, supercharger testing, and engine analysis. Four people worked in a physics lab. Between 1927 and 1930-the crucial period when Congress increased NACA appropriations from half a million to over a million dollars-Langley hired 55 new professionals. Through the worst years of the Depression, the Committee was able to get enough money to keep the lab's professional and nonprofessional staff levels steady. In 1936 Langley employed three times the staff it had in 1925, but that expansion still amounted to only 230 more employees. The staff size was such that members from junior engineering aide to engineer-in-charge could know each other personally.

The arrangement and apparel of the Langley staff in the accompanying photograph (p. 43), April 1921, reflect Langley's original social structure. The photograph shows 34 employees: 33 men and 1 woman. Leigh Griffith, senior staff engineer, stands on the loading dock seventh from the left. Posed second to his right (on the other side of white-shirted David Bacon, head of the Variable-Density Tunnel section) is Frederick Norton, chief physicist. Though the two men held equal rank at the time officially, the photographic impression suggests seniority: Griffith over Norton. A mechanic, a physicist, and an engineer stand to Norton's right, with Henry Reid, future engineer-in-charge, at the very end. Kneeling in front of these men are the four members of flight operations. All four had World War I military experience. The moustached man resembling actor Errol Flynn,....




42] Growth of Langley Staff, 1919-1939

Fiscal year




. .





















































































Source: "Growth of Langley's Staff," 16 Sept. 1965, Langley Historical Archive, Milton Ames Collection Box 2.


.....test pilot Thomas Carroll, had served in France teaching air tactics to pilots. Two of Griffith's power plants engineers crouch in front of Norton, Bacon, and Griffith. The five men (two kneeling, three standing) in the middle of the photo wearing coats with vests made up the drafting section. Two men and, standing between them, one woman composed the property and clerical staff. Finally, the right side of the picture shows the technical service employees in rolled-up shirt sleeves and work clothes.

The median age of the Langley staff in 1921 was roughly 28. The professionals especially were young: power plant engineers Gardiner and Ware were 23 and 27, respectively; assistant physicist Brown was 24 and electrical engineer Reid 26. Morgan, head of the drafting room, was 41; his boys called him "Pop." Only two men had significant aerodynamical....




LMAL staff, 1921

LMAL staff, April 1921. Front row, left to right: J. Turon, mechanic; Robert Mixson, airplane mechanic; Fred Hunsecker, airplane mechanic; Thomas Carroll, test pilot; Marsden Ware, power plant engineer; Robertson Matthews, power plant engineer; E. Tasso Morgan, draftsman; Arthur Webster, draftsman; Percy Keffer, patternmaker; Harwood Moore, tool room attendant; J. D. Shurtleff, toolmaker; Harry Downs, leadingman machinist; Howard Morris, toolmaker; Charles Wolf, mechanic; and Samuel Eakin, mechanic. Back row, left to right: Henry J. E. Reid, electrical engineer (later to become engineer-in-charge); William C. Brown, assistant physicist; Arthur Gardiner, power plant engineer; H. M. Metz, engine mechanic; Frederick H. Norton, physicist; David L. Bacon, mechanical engineer; Leigh Griffith, senior staff engineer (later to become engineer-in-charge); C. H. Masters, draftsman; William C. Morgan, mechanical engineer; Benjamin Bennett, draftsman; Frank Herbert, property officer; A. M. Campbell, stenographer; Joseph McManus, chief clerk; William Adams, carpenter; Edward Raub, toolmaker; Ernest Gay, chief carpenter; John Hanks, mechanic; John Evans, mechanic; and Edward McDonald, fireman.


....experience: physicist Norton and engineer Bacon. Norton had done "a little work" in the MIT wind tunnel. This qualified him at age 25-and only three years after his graduation-to be Langley's chief physicist.24 Twenty-six year-old David Bacon had worked between 1918 and 1921 for the Gallaudet Aircraft Corporation doing design, development, and a certain amount of research work involving pressure distribution tests on seaplanes in free flight. Hired fresh out of school with a minimum knowledge of aerodynamics and little practical experience of any kind, the majority of these early Langley researchers learned nearly everything on the job. Because they were so young, they had not yet learned that a lot of things just could not be done, so they went ahead and did them.

Members of the technical staff who supported the research effort with various services, such as carpentry and mechanics, or making wind tunnel models and special tools, were older and more experienced. Most of these people came from the immediate vicinity of the lab. The communities....



David L. Bacon and Frederick H. Norton escorting Orville Wright, 1922.

Engineer David L. Bacon (far left) and physicist Frederick H. Norton, escorted Orville Wright, in hat, around the laboratory during his visit in July 1922. To the far right is George Lewis.


....of Hampton, Newport News, Portsmouth, and Norfolk possessed a large population of craftsmen and artisans skilled in the operation of machinery, in wood, metal, and concrete construction, in marine and auto repair, in tool making, and in the design and uses of various instruments and electrical equipment. The Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, located at the terminus of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railways, was one of the largest firms of its type in the world. Its apprentice programs attracted young workers from as far away as South Carolina and New Jersey. During World War I, the fine harbors of Hampton Roads-where the ironclads Monitor and Merrimack had fought their famous battle during the Civil War-became the home of America's largest naval base and port of embarkation, their shores lined with naval workshops, shipyards, depots, cantonments, and fortifications. Back at Langley Field another cadre of technicians, including engine mechanics, aerial photographers, and aerial and ground observers, worked for the army. The NACA recruited most of its technical service personnel from such local talent. These craftsmen were prized highly by the professional staff, for they provided the essential support services on which all the research programs depended.



Technical service employees at work in the hangar, 1920s

Technical service employees at work in the hangar, 1920s


Technical service employees at work in the hangar, 1920s


The work of talented mechanics and other technical employees was instrumental to the NACA 's success. These three photographs show some of the everyday activities of early LMAL hangar personnel. Left, a mechanic stands on a stool to work on an air-cooled radial engine. Right, metalworkers weld a piece of pipe. Bottom, two mechanics measure wing ordinates on a Curtiss Jenny airplane.


[46] Unlike the nonprofessionals, the majority of professionals came to work at Langley from outside the local community, in particular from the industrialized states of the Northeast and Midwest, which had the major engineering schools. This resulted in a clique of New Englanders at the lab who had studied at such places as MIT, Cornell, Yale, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute, as well as a large group of graduates from the University of Michigan.**

These young men had chosen to go to work for the NACA for various personal reasons, most of which centered on an attraction to airplanes and flying. Smith J. "Smitty" DeFrance, one of the Michigan graduates, went to work at Langley in 1922 after completing his degree in aeronautical engineering. He had left college temporarily during World War I to train as an aviator with the Canadian Flying Corps and later, after America's formal entry into the conflict, had flown with the U.S. Army's 139th Aero Squadron. For DeFrance, taking the civil service junior aeronautical engineer's exam that led to NACA employment was simply "a matter of getting a job," as in 1922 there was still a serious postwar recession plaguing the country.25 Floyd L. Thompson decided to come to Langley because DeFrance, a fellow Michigan alumnus, told him that the Virginia lab was "a good place to work." "He said they have roses for Christmas," Thompson remembered in 1973, and, coming out of a long and snowy Ann Arbor winter, "that impressed me too." Thompson took the qualifying exam, but because he heard nothing of his application for a long time, he also applied for a job as a field representative at the Pontiac plant of General Motors:


The day came when I got a response from General Motors, which said report up to Pontiac for duty, and I was just about to go there when ... I got a letter from Langley


Thompson chose Langley over Pontiac because he felt it "was the only opportunity that I knew of anywhere to get into interesting work in aeronautics"-his true passion. (In 1918, Thompson had been a member of the first class of the U.S. Navy's Great Lakes aviation mechanics school, and had then spent a year at Pensacola serving as a member of the first [47] naval torpedo plane squadron. One of his most memorable experiences in late adolescence was seeing a Larsen monoplane flying from Milwaukee to Chicago.)26

The stories of DeFrance and Thompson, besides being indicative of the motives of many others who chose to come to work for the NACA in the early years, are of special interest. These two Michigan aeronautical engineers spent their entire careers with the NACA and NASA, becoming directors of Ames and Langley laboratories, respectively, each leaving his distinctive stamp on the character of his research center.

The great majority of professionals who reported to work at Langley in the 1920s came to the lab with engineering training not specifically designed to prepare them for doing advanced aeronautical research. Only a few had specialized in aeronautical engineering. The University of Michigan, MIT, and New York University had degree programs in aeronautics by 1926, but only three schools-Caltech, Stanford, and the University of Washington, each a continent away from Langley Field-offered any aeronautics option for mechanical engineering students. And even the outstanding education at these few schools had serious limitations, especially in the teaching of aerodynamic theories. According to Stanford's aerodynamics professor Elliott G. Reid, existing textbooks in English on such subjects as airfoil theory were "too advanced, too academic or too condensed for maximum usefulness in the classroom." As the principal text for his presentation of wing theory to graduate students in aeronautical engineering during the early 1930s, Reid was thus compelled to use the NACA's 1921 translation of Ludwig Prandtl's classic 1904 paper "Applications of Modern Hydrodynamics to Aeronautics." Reid found this a "difficult experience" for everyone involved, not only because the NACA's translation of Prandtl's work lacked clarity and precision, but because the translation retained the German aerodynamic symbols and coefficients and also included somewhat superfluous sections devoted to airship hulls and propellers.27

Nonetheless, the aeronautical, mechanical, and electrical engineering programs at American universities and polytechnical schools did a relatively good job of preparing young graduates to adapt to advanced aeronautical research. Mechanical engineering was a broad subject in the 1920s, covering nearly everything pertaining to prime movers, generation of power, and manufacturing. It interlocked with all other branches of engineering and dealt with the design, construction, testing, and even sales of machines and mechanical devices, together with the arrangement of the plants in which they were produced. With concentrated reading in aerodynamics and a postgraduate exposure to aircraft, wind tunnels, and aeronautical instruments, there was no reason why bright young mechanical engineers....



Specimen curriculum for University of Michigan's aeronautical engineering program, 1922-1923

The University of Michigan created one of the first and finest aeronautical engineering programs in the country. Left, a page from the university catalog, 1916-1917, showing course offerings; right, the specimen curriculum from the university's 1922-1928 catalog. (Courtesy of Michigan Historical Collections, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor)


....could not turn into insightful, productive aerodynamical researchers. In fact, many did at Langley laboratory.

Electrical engineers were even better prepared for careers in aerodynamical research. Along with instruction in the fundamental applications of electricity, they were trained to develop and use recording instruments like those necessary to measure the forces acting on an airplane in real or simulated flight. Moreover, electrodynamic theory, its symbols and equations, translated nicely into aerodynamic theory. Finally, the effective operation of laboratory machinery-especially the wind tunnels-depended upon electric power and the engineer's ability to tend power systems, generators, transformers, and the like. (Henry Reid, Langley's engineer-in-charge from 1926 to 1960, was an electrical engineer.)

The training of engineers specifically for aeronautics, then, was not the most serious problem. The problem was attracting and keeping a [49] sufficient number of engineers with even the basic requirements. A Langley power plants engineer, on returning from an unsuccessful recruiting trip to Swarthmore College in 1924, reported to the engineer-in-charge that seniors


had been surfeited with propositions from commercial concerns. Many such representatives had been proselytizing at the college and offering great inducements, especially as regards advances in the sales field with only enough preparatory training to give them a basis for sales talk. One commercial organization had gone as far as to give three separate talks, a week apart, in order to arouse and maintain interest.


The net result was that Langley's recruiter found most of the Swarthmore men either signed up for jobs or practically so and not, therefore, in a receptive frame of mind. The chief disadvantage for the NACA-besides its generally lower starting pay-was the requirement of a civil service examination before appointment, while the degree sufficed for commercial concerns.28

The NACA knew that some of its research professionals planned to stay at Langley for only a brief time, like graduate fellows at a university, until they could secure more attractive employment in the aircraft industry. In 1926 George Lewis wrote to Alexander Klemin, New York University aeronautics professor, about the value of an NACA apprenticeship:


I feel that an engineering graduate who obtains a position with this Committee has an excellent opportunity to extend his theoretical knowledge, and, in particular, prepare himself as a research engineer. The opportunities for advancement are good, as evidenced by the fact that all of the activities at Langley Field are in charge of engineers who are recent graduates. All of the men who have left the Committee and who were in charge of major activities at our laboratory are now in charge of research laboratories.29

Lewis and the rest of NACA management accepted the abbreviated length of many tenures grudgingly, however, and embraced those who decided, because the work proved sufficiently interesting and challenging, to stay longer than planned.

The frequency of such resignations in the 1920s constituted a real threat to the operation of the laboratory. A survey of staff service cards shows that no fewer than 37 men of professional grade left Langley between 1920 and the end of 1931 after relatively brief stays on a professional staff that took until 1930 to total 100. The median age of these departing employees was only 28. Fifteen had graduated from the prestigious aeronautical engineering programs at MIT and Michigan. Both the aerodynamics and power plant divisions suffered serious losses of key personnel. Two chief...



LMAL staff, 1926

LMAL staff, August 1926. The number of female employees has grown from one in 1921 to seven. George Lewis and Henry Reid (his mouth and chin not visible) are sitting in the middle of the third row. To Lewis's right is chief test pilot Tom Carroll; to Reid's left is chief clerk Edward R. "Ray" Sharp.



....physicists resigned in a period of less than two years(1923-24). This led Leigh Griffith, who himself was soon to leave the NACA, to say, "The aerodynamics research has not been subject to the same detailed guidance that it received previously ... so that the research work in flight and in the two tunnels has not progressed as rapidly as I desired. 30 Resignations seem to have climaxed in 1927 and involved such major figures as Marsden Ware and Arthur Gardiner, Langley's top power plants engineers; Elliott Reid, the head of the Atmospheric Wind Tunnel section; Paul Hemke, physicist; Paul King, test pilot; and Max Munk, the aerodynamicist imported by the Committee from Germany soon after the end of World War I. (Munk's resignation was a special case that will be studied in detail in the next chapter.)

Several events in the mid-1920s stimulated American aviation and created a highly mobile market for aeronautical engineers. Henry Ford started the first regular commercial air freight line (between Detroit and Chicago) in 1925, and in the same year Congress passed the Kelly bill authorizing contract air transport of mail. In 1926 President Coolidge signed the Air Commerce Act, the first federal legislation regulating civil aviation; the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics [51] made its initial university grant; and NACA Langley hosted its first annual manufacturers' conference. Lindbergh flew the Atlantic in 1927. This rapid series of events awakened Americans to the potential of flight, and the aircraft construction industry took off. During this "Lindbergh boom," nearly everyone became interested in flying. As a result, worldwide sales of American-built aircraft shot up from 789 units in 1925 to over 6000 units in 1929.31

The resulting stiff competition for qualified aeronautical technologists caused wage wars that cost Langley several of its most promising researchers. Twenty-five of the 37 men mentioned earlier as having left the lab between 1920 and 1931 resigned during the Lindbergh boom. We know the immediate post-NACA employment of fourteen of this group:.. nine joined industry, four academia, and one the military. We can guess that industry coaxed most of the others also. Two of the Committee's recruits from the University of Michigan in 1924, Karl J. Fairbanks and Maitland B. Bleecker, resigned to take jobs with industry within two years of Langley employment. Bleecker went to work for Wright Aeronautical Corporation in New Jersey, and Fairbanks became a stress analyst for Consolidated Aircraft in New York (and later a technical adviser to the board of directors for AVCO and, during World War II, management coordinator for Brewster Aeronautical Corporation). Robert J. Woods, Michigan class of 1928, resigned his Langley post after barely one year at the lab to take successive jobs with Towle, Detroit, Lockheed, Consolidated, and Bell aircraft companies. With them he made major contributions in the field of military aircraft design, especially for the P-39 Airacobra, and helped to initiate the Bell X-1 supersonic research airplane program. Fred Weick, who had taken a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois in 1922, resigned in 1929 to become chief engineer of the Hamilton Aero Manufacturing Company in Milwaukee. He returned in 1930 and left again in 1936 to fulfill his dream of putting a small private-owner airplane into commercial design. Charles Zimmerman, a 1928 University of Kansas graduate, left Langley in 1937 for a similar reason. After growing increasingly devoted to a "flying wing" concept, he moved from the NACA to Chance Vought. (He returned to Langley in 1948.) Both Zimmerman and Weick had worked on their airplane concepts while at Langley, but could not bring their plans to fruition there.32

As serious a problem as the turnover of employees and their transplantation within industry and academia was in Langley's early years, it also had some real advantages. Qualified researchers who remained at the lab advanced more quickly when their superiors left. Richard V. Rhode, for...



In the photo to the left, Weick is the man to the left with hands on hips

In the photo to the right Weick is in the rear cockpit, Lindbergh is in the front, and Tom Hamilton is standing.

While employed at Hamilton, veteran NACA engineer Fred Weick made a series of propeller tests with Charles Lindbergh. (This was at Hamilton's west coast factory in Glendale, California, where Lockheed also had a plant.) In early 1930, Lindbergh was pruning his new Lockheed Sirius for an attempt to break the cross-country record from Los Angeles to New York. He wondered whether Weick might find him a propeller that would give his plane a little more speed. After learning what propeller the Sirius had, Weick informed Lindbergh that the most he could hope for would be an increase of about one mile per hour, and that to make the tests accurately would probably take a number of flights. Lindbergh surprised Weick by deciding that the one mile per hour was worth going after. For three days the two aeronautical pioneers flew the Sirius through a series of runs along a speed course that Weick had laid out along a railroad track between Burbank and Van Nuys. The results were quite accurate, but they were a great disappointment to Lindbergh. In earlier speed trials, which had not been carried out with Weick's painstaking accuracy, the Sirius had supposedly attained 177 MPH. The speed obtained in Weick 's tests was eight miles per hour less-only 169 MPH. In the final run, with the best propeller and optimum pitch setting, Lindbergh's new plane did reach 170 MPH. From 169 to 170 MPH - this was an increase of one mile per hour, just as Weick had predicted.


In the photo to the left, Weick is the man to the left with hands on hips; Lindbergh is to the right. In the photo to the right Weick is in the rear cockpit, Lindbergh is in the front, and Tom Hamilton is standing.



[53] ....instance, fell heir to the PW-9 flight loads project-which was in its planning stages between 1926 and 1929-because of key resignations in the flight research section.33 And though the personnel losses may have retarded the successful execution of a few NACA research projects, the larger American aeronautics effort-the raison d'être of the NACA-probably benefited from them. Langley provided a training ground for some dozens of aeronautical experts at a time when American universities were not stimulating their growth and development. An apprenticeship at Langley seems to have been excellent-preparation 0 other jobs in the design and manufacturing of aircraft and the teaching of aerodynamic principles. Conversely, and probably more importantly, understanding and appreciation of NACA goals and working procedures by former employees definitely facilitated closer contact among the various organizations concerned with aeronautics.

The career of Elliott G. Reid provides an example of this important liaison. Reid began working at Langley in July 1922, one month after graduating from the University of Michigan's aeronautical engineering program. By 1925 he was in charge of research in the Atmospheric Wind Tunnel section. In August 1927 he resigned his Langley post to teach aerodynamics at Stanford University. While teaching at Stanford, Reid maintained a close and cordial relationship with his old friends in the NACA. He and Prof. Everett P. Lesley cooperated on propeller research under contract to the Committee (as well as to the Army Air Corps and the navy's Bureau of Aeronautics). Reid had married a Virginia woman while at Langley and sometimes called at the lab during occasional visits to his wife's family farm. Though he never actually recruited for the NACA, Reid encouraged his students to consider research for the Committee as a career. Numerous Stanford-educated engineers, in fact, went to work at Langley in the 1930s and at NACA Ames lab in the 1940s.***

The importance of this liaison can be seen at its highest political level in the career of Edward P. Warner, whose early service with the NACA he was Langley's first chief physicist-surely had an impact on his later dealings with the Committee. After resigning from the NACA in June 1920, Warner became aeronautics professor at MIT, assistant secretary of the navy in charge of aviation, editor of the journal Aviation, adviser to the [54] Civil Aeronautics Administration, and a leading member of the influential NACA Aerodynamics Committee. Though Warner's role in helping the NACA politically has not been studied thoroughly enough to make definitive conclusions, it is clear that he often used his strong voice to promote NACA research. In the late 1930s, for example, as head of a group responsible for writing the specifications for the Douglas DC-4 transport plane, Warner asked specifically that Langley provide the basic data on stability and control.

Two external factors in the late 1920s and early 1930s helped to ease Langley's major personnel problems: (1) Guggenheim's philanthropic support of aeronautical education at various American universities from 1926 on increased the quantity and improved the quality of the manpower supply, and (2) the Wall Street crash of 1929 brought on the collapse of several of those aircraft manufacturers that were out-competing the NACA for trained manpower. During the Depression that followed, the NACA was better able to select and retain qualified researchers, even when it had to give a few of its college-educated employees nonprofessional ratings and the majority of its veterans minimum professional pay.34 Langley researcher John V. Becker recalls that upon his graduation from New York University in 1936 his first job offer came from Grumman: $25 a week in the company shop. Becker opted for the NACA, better pay ($38.50 a week), and a chance to work with unique research equipment.35 As a result of a number of such decisions, the Depression became the golden age of NACA recruiting. In consequence, a larger, better trained, and more stable research staff at the Hampton installation performed aerodynamic research in many ways superior in quality to the NACA product of the earlier decade.


Specialization and Innovation


A common predicament among researchers is not knowing in advance whether general knowledge or specific knowledge will prove most valuable in the process of discovery. Faced with this dilemma, many people decide that it is better to look far and wide in pursuit of solutions and new knowledge than it is to focus exclusively on one given object. An individual can become a pure specialist, after all, by staying confined to a chosen field of ignorance.

For the most part, Langley would avoid excessive specialization and succeed as a research institution because it did so. NACA managers as a group must have felt that it would be unwise for Langley to specialize: Since a succession of unpredictable new problems more diverse than those already existing at the end of World War I could be expected to emerge from the embryonic field of aeronautics, practical solutions would likely require the [55] effective assimilation and combined use of many different kinds of scientific and technological knowledge, both specific and general. In any case, the fact of the matter for NACA managers was that Langley had too few personnel to disperse among many specialized duties.

Before its tremendous expansion during World War II, the NACA's staff was large enough to specialize only where the promised rewards were substantial. the 1920s and 1930s the biggest payoff was in refining the aerodynamics of the airplane, and that quickly became the job that Langley excelled in. Aerodynamics as practiced at the laboratory during the interwar years (and later) was not limited to the usual fields of that discipline, however. Besides the study of the fundamentals of fluid flow, wings, bodies, and propellers, aerodynamics also included a great deal of work in hydrodynamics, meteorology, instrumentation (electrical and otherwise), research equipment and techniques, and, most importantly, in propulsion (e.g., engine cowlings, engine cooling, nacelle placement, air intakes and exits, fuels, friction and lubrication, and noise) and in structures (e.g., loads, vibration, and flutter).

Within the fields of aerodynamics-loosely defined, as above-attention to special subjects waxed and waned. In the 1920s and early 1930s, for example, Langley conducted extensive experimental and theoretical work on lighter-than-air (LTA) craft. The army had assigned its 19th Airship Squadron to Langley Field at the end of World War I. From 1922 on, this outfit was stationed in a large hangar located on the northwest side of the airplane runway. NACA flight personnel assisted the squadron with speed and deceleration runs for several classes of army airships and helped to determine improved takeoff, landing, and docking procedures. The NACA also detailed Langley personnel to assist in the flight trials of the navy's lighter-than-air craft.36

As a result of this practical "hands-on" experience, many Langley flight researchers became outspoken advocates of airships. It was not clear at all to them or to anyone else at the time that the airplane would win out over the airship, let alone as totally as it soon did. Airplanes of the early 1920s were slow and small-an aerodynamicist who favored airships over airplanes even went to the bother of "proving" that airplanes larger than those of the day could never be built. LTA advocates believed correctly that airships had enormous unproven capabilities: they were not much slower and could carry many more passengers in far greater comfort than airplanes, most of which still had open cockpits; they were much more forgiving than airplanes during instrument flight; and with their extreme range and low operating cost, they could be used not just as military weapons but also for transportation of heavy commercial and industrial loads.



Navy airship U.S.S. Los Angeles in flight research, 1928.

A camera obscura situated on top of a platform at the edge of the flying field measures the turning radius of the navy dirigible U.S.S. Los Angeles in 1928.


Despite these capabilities, the age of the airship ended on 6 May 1937, the day of the Hindenburg disaster. The gaseous explosion of Germany's greatest zeppelin killed 36 people-of whom 13 were passengers; the only passengers ever lost in 20 years of commercial travel by airship-and the tragedy became one of the greatest news events of its time. Stark public memory of the big dirigible going down in flames at its mooring at Lakehurst, New Jersey, and of the extraordinarily emotional live reporting of an eyewitness radio announcer, guaranteed the death of LTA flight as the losses of the Roma, Shenandoah, Akron, and Macon had not.37

Though some men at Langley remained interested in solving the problems of LTA flight even after the Hindenburg disaster, the NACA knew that further advocacy of comprehensive LTA flight studies would be politically foolish. Langley did use airship models for a brief time in association with a Propeller Research Tunnel program designed to explore improving the drag and propulsive efficiency of aircraft through boundary-layer control.38 But after this work was completed in 1938, Langley carried out no more research relating to airships. Researchers who had specialized in LTA studies quickly translated their backlog of particular skills and experience to the study of airplanes. This translation happened rather easily, because those who had been most involved in airship research had been forced by the pressures of the busy NACA agenda to remain active all the while in more general aerodynamic testing.




Scale model of navy airship U.S.S. Akron in Full-Scale Tunnel (FST), 1935.

A 1/40th-scale model of the navy airship U.S.S. Akron being prepared for aerodynamic testing on a ground board at zero degrees of yaw in the Full-Scale Tunnel in 1935.


The NACA's involvement in the airplane-airship competition contributed more to its understanding of aerodynamics than most people today can imagine. Airship design leaned more heavily on aerodynamic theory than had airplane design because there was little empirical knowledge of airships, since few had been built. Larger and more expensive than airplanes, completed airship structures could not be modified for experimental variations as readily; hence flight-testing was extremely limited. At the same time, wind tunnel tests of airships had been less persuasive than of airplanes because of the relatively greater difficulties caused by scale effects. The history of the NACA's attention to airships demonstrates that there can be a wonderfully productive cross-flow between disciplinary specialties which only the enthusiast or visionary can anticipate. In 1936 Max M. Munk, who had been a technical adviser at NACA headquarters (1921-25) and chief physicist at Langley (1926-27), predicted that


since airship design draws on the whole domain of aerodynamics and since special airship aerodynamics should contain as its most notable problem the full analysis of airship drag, it seems quite possible that from airship theory may some day come forward such fundamental progress as shall revolutionize our technique of air travel.39


In a way, Munk's intuition proved correct: airship theory became extremely valuable when NACA researchers like Robert T. Jones began to extend airfoil theory to the near-sonic and supersonic speed ranges. In 1945 Jones used as the basis for a new slender-wing theory a linear theory formulated [58] by Munk in 1924 for the approximation of specified forces acting on airship hulls. Jones's approximation avoided severe mathematical difficulties in determining the lift distribution of wings-difficulties involving, among other things, the solution of an equation containing a double integral. Near the end of World War II, Jones recognized the indirect value of such a theory for the design of delta (triangular) and swept wings; soon after the NACA's publication of his theory, so did many others. (See chapter 10.)

The NACA mobilized its staff for a special research effort, generally speaking, in one of two ways: either by adding a new unit to the formal organization, or by fostering an unofficial shadow organization that operated perpendicularly to the formal organization's mainly vertical lines of organization. "Small teams or task groups would be set up in these cases, relieved of their normal duties and exempted from normal lines of authority, burdens of paperwork, etc.-that is, freed from the restraints of the large parent organization, while taking advantage of its services and facilities whenever possible."40 Laboratory management usually chose between the formal and informal response more instinctively than consciously.


The Product of Environment


One might have thought that the cosmopolitan character of modern aeronautics called for locating America's research center in the industrialized Northeast, in the nation's capital, or perhaps on the campus of a major university. None of these had happened. The NACA had built its laboratory on fiat plantation fields near Hampton, a sleepy and isolated small town on the southwestern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, in an area known to many as "Tidewater" and to a few as "the Asia Minor of Virginia." Airplanes circled over Langley Field, where crops of wheat and alfalfa had recently grown, while provincial watermen farmed oysters in the waters of Back River. The NACA installation, the adjacent army airfield, and the growth of Hampton Roads as a center of American naval power and shipbuilding during and after World War I combined to transform much of the antebellum character of the area. But the area had its effects upon the character of Langley as well.

As stated earlier, research professionals came to Langley largely from great distances beyond Hampton, from the northern states that possessed the major engineering schools. Many of the engineers who left Langley in its formative years resigned discontented, not with the NACA, but with Hampton. In the eyes of the newly arriving northern professionals, the community appeared a cultural backwater, an isolated place surrounded by large bodies of water on three sides and a wilderness of marshes and tall [59] pines on the fourth. With the exception of regular steamboat lines on the Chesapeake Bay and a few river ferries, travel into or away from the secluded peninsula was difficult. Unlike today's citizens, Hamptonians then enjoyed neither a tunnel under Hampton Roads to Norfolk nor bridges spanning the wide James River at Newport News or the York River at Yorktown.

Langley Field itself rested at the northern frontier of Elizabeth City County as an island within an island. A few miles of farms and swampland separated the airfield from the small town. Only bad roads-some made from crushed oyster shells-linked laboratory to living room. The most attractive residential areas were the farthest from Langley, along the boulevards paralleling Hampton Roads, the James River, or Buckroe Beach on the Bay. The old families who lived in these neighborhoods, however, did not welcome newcomers from the North into their midst. One young Langley arrival, after failing to find a room-for-rent sign in a pleasant neighborhood, went to the door of a private home in order to ask advice of its owner. The homeowner, besides informing him that he knew of no rentals, growled that the newcomer was the first "Yankee" ever to come through that gate.41

Langley management was very aware of this and other housing problems. It had pleaded with the Army Air Service in the early 1920s to provide suitable on-base quarters, but nothing permanent or satisfactory was ever arranged. A number of the earliest employees slept on cots in the Research Laboratory Building. Several unmarried men herded together in boarding houses, while others slept at hotels. Some NACA recruits even turned down job appointments because they could not find suitable residences for themselves and their families in Hampton. Late in the decade the lab tried to influence some local businessmen to finance the building of new houses and apartments for its employees, and even took surveys on what rent its employees would be willing to pay, how many rooms and what kind of furnishings were required, etc.42 This effort to motivate the local construction industry met with some success, but the problem of finding satisfactory housing remained severe for Langley employees into the 1950s.

The environment oppressed the newcomer in at least one other way. One of the aeronautical engineers from Michigan (Floyd Thompson) reported to work at Langley in the summer of 1926 in 98-degree temperature and high humidity. People told him that it was unseasonably hot, but the young man subsequently discovered that it was unseasonably hot there almost every year at that time.43 What was worse, Prohibition was in effect! At first glance anyway, the Langley professional perceived local life as painfully provincial and unfulfilling.



Map of Hampton Roads area, late 1930s

LMAL map of the Hampton Roads area from the late 1930s. The James River bridge at Newport News was completed in the late 1920s. (The map is not drawn to scale.)


The professionals who stayed on adjusted to their new environment by learning to embellish and enjoy their distinction from the established Tidewater community. They formed an activities association, which sponsored a lunchroom at the lab and maintained a "Shore Camp" for fishing, picnicking, and other vacation activities, and they even created a fraternal social club known as "The Noble Order of the Green Cow."44 Extracurricular camaraderie translated into an important esprit de corps during workdays. Some freethinkers and loners did not fit too well into this active brotherhood of living, working, and playing together, but the majority seem to have enjoyed it. The intensity of interaction between Langley personnel, distinct from established Hampton society, caused a real sense of family to develop. The feeling became so deeply rooted in the small NACA community that it flourished long after the original population had been assimilated into native life (largely through marriage to local girls). In 1976, 18 years after their parent body went out of existence, over 600 members of the NACA family celebrated a reunion. A larger number attended "Reunion II" in 1982. These conventions of former employees of a defunct agency are rare happenings in the social history of American government.



<<Short pants brigade,>> 1930

Langley's staff of young engineers wearing shorts to beat the summer heat of Tidewater in 1930. From left to right: Harvey Herring, Irvin Coates, Warren Weiss, Clindon Glass, W. M. Martin, Ray W. Hooker, W. K. Ritter, Eastman Jacobs, Robert Mixson, John Stack, George Hammeter, Joseph A. Shortal, Kenneth Ward, R. E. Tozier, C. D. Waldron, Charles H. Zimmerman, Gilbert Strailman, Melvin Cough, Everett Johnson, Elton W. Miller, Fred Schultz, Ira H. Abbott, and Addison Rothrock.


The intensity of interaction within what was a small professional complement, numbering only 44 in 1926, led in a few cases to a certain peculiar personality-the so-called "NACA Nut." This "acceptable eccentric" was a technical sophisticate par excellence, who wanted to know the RPM of his vacuum cleaner and asked that his lumber be cut to the sixteenth of the inch. In local lore, this person was dreaded by every hardware and automobile salesman in Hampton and nearby Newport News.

Though most locals regarded the NACA Nut with humor, they were not fond of certain other NACA types. In fact, the reluctance of the local people to accept the strangers may have resulted in part from the "smart-alecky behavior of some of the Langley professionals, who regarded themselves as intellectually superior to the natives." When asked to make a few remarks to the Hampton Rotary Club in 1923, engineer-in-charge Griffith, for example, used the opportunity to tell everyone exactly what he thought was wrong with the town.45 Eventually Henry Reid, Griffith's successor, developed....



Christmas party, 1928.

The NACA staff held an annual Christmas party in the Langley boathouse, December 1928.



NACA Nuts supervising clean up of hurricane damage, 1933.

NACA Nuts supervise cleanup operations after a 1933 hurricane. From left to right: Walter Reiser, chief of the Maintenance Division; Henry Reid, engineer-in-charge; Ray Sharp, chief clerk and property officer; and Elton Miller, chief of the Aerodynamics Division.




[63] .....more solid rapport with the Hampton citizenry, largely by being active in community affairs and belonging to many local service organizations.

Those researchers who came to stay at the Hampton facility into the 1930s gradually realized that to work at the NACA laboratory was in fact to be at a cosmopolitan hub of world aeronautics. At Langley, the Committee brought together men from the best engineering schools and fostered their cooperation and intellectual cross-fertilization. (The number of women with professional grades at Langley before World War II can be counted on one hand, with fingers left over.) It gave its researchers a chance to work in the most advanced wind tunnels and supplied them with translations of the most important scientific and technical papers from around the world. The annual NACA-sponsored aircraft manufacturers' conference (see chapter 6) kept them in touch with leaders of the aircraft industry and gave them a regular chance to publicize their work. One engineer who worked at Langley in the 1930s later recalled that


it wasn't a matter of NACA going out to find out what somebody else was doing. It was a matter of other people trying to find out what we were doing.46


The successful research programs at Langley in the late 1920s and 1930s, especially the systematic airfoil and cowling programs (described in chapters 4 and 5) enhanced the public reputation of the NACA and strengthened feelings of satisfaction with Hampton and self-sufficiency at the lab. Here, too, was a source for the family feeling at Langley.

Many Langley veterans say that the laboratory operation ultimately benefited much more than it suffered from physical isolation. Because of its distance from Washington and its strong sense of individual identity, "Langley did not think of itself as part of the federal bureaucracy." The lab thus kept paperwork to a minimum, staff meetings brief, program reviews relatively simple and straightforward, and attention focused on technical and scientific rather than political matters.47 In other words, employees were better able to concentrate on their real work.

A major part of this real work, and much of the human drama that accompanied it, was carried out in the wind tunnel buildings.


* During World War II Kantrowitz worked at Langley on airfoil cascades, axial-flow compressors, and the dynamics of gas turbines. Then he began to devote himself more and more to exploring the connection between quantum physics and fluid mechanics. The first connection that he established was in an NACA paper on heat-capacity lag that demonstrated how the vibrational energy of a gas (C02) lagged behind changes in temperature occurring in a gas flow ("Effects of Heat-Capacity Lag in Gas Dynamics," Advanced Restricted Rept. L4A22, 22 Jan. 1944. There is an earlier version of this paper by Kantrowitz, dated 8 Dec. 1941, in the Floyd Thompson Memorial Library, LaRC, Code 5070-184. An abbreviated version of it appeared in the Journal of Chemical Physics, 14 Mar. 1946, pp. 150-164). Kantrowitz left Langley in 1946 for a professorship at Cornell University. A year later Columbia accepted a revision of his paper on heat-capacity lag as his doctoral thesis. In the 1950s Kantrowitz went to work for the "CO Research Laboratory in Everett, Massachusetts, where he worked on various ICBM concepts. Later he studied the science of blood clotting with his brother, a famous cardiologist, and designed a series of cardiac assist devices, including an artificial heart. Obviously, it was wise for a man with as many rich and different scientific interests and talents as Arthur Kantrowitz not to restrict his career to aeronautics only, at Langley only.

** The New England clique was led by Edward P. Warner, Fred Norton, and John Crowley from MIT; David Bacon from Yale; and Henry Reid from Worcester. The Michigan group included Starr Truscott, class of '09; Robert G. Freeman, class of '21; Clinton H. Dearborn, Smith J. DeFrance, Elliott G. Reid, and Kenneth M. Ronan, class of '22; George J. Higgins, Ernest D. Perkins, and Maurice D. Warner, class of '23; Maitland B. Bleecker, George L. Defoe, and Karl J. Fairbanks, class of '24; Millard J. Bamber, class of '25; Floyd L. Thompson, class of '26; Howard W. Kirschbaum, class of '27; and Robert J. Woods, class of '28.

*** At Langley, this group included H. Julian "Harvey" Allen, Carl Babberger, Ogden W. Bodenheimer, Ralph B. Miller, John F. Parson, Warren D. Reed, Russell G. Robinson, Francis M. Rogallo, and John B. Wheatley. At Ames, it included George B. McCullough, Henry Jessen, Charles W. Frick, Jr., Ralph F. Hunsberger, and Walter G. Vincenti. On the origins of the Stanford propeller research for the NACA, see Vincenti's "The Air-Propeller Tests of W. F. Durand and E. P. Lesley: A Case Study in Technological Method," Technology and Culture 20 (Oct. 1979): 712-51.

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