Chapter 2 - A Heritage Lost and Regained

What Was America Doing All This Time?


[12] By the time World War I began, leadership in aerodynamic research had incontrovertibly shifted to Europe. The United States, in fact, contributed no first-line aircraft to the war. This does not mean that aerodynamic research had come to a complete standstill in America. Some government decision makers...

inverted bi-plane model

 [13] National Physical Laboratory duplex wind tunnel with a biplane model in place for lift and drag measurements. (It was easier to measure lift forces when the plane was upside down.) (Photo, National Physics Laboratory)


....and influential citizens recognized the sad situation, but America's response to the European challenge remained inadequate throughout World War I.

Just before hostilities began, Albert Zahm once again applied his talents to wind tunnel design, this time in a rather unlikely place, the Washington Navy Yard. Working for the Navy's Aerodynamical Laboratory, Zahm built an 8 x 8-foot tunnel in 1913 to generate aerodynamic data for future naval aircraft. An ingenious feature of his new tunnel was the use of a 4 x 4-foot insert that reduced the cross-sectional area by four and thereby increased airspeed in the test section. With the insert, speeds of 160 mph were attained-values equal to the diving speeds of many military aircraft of that period.

Two significant early American tunnels were the 5.5-foot tunnel built by Durand at Stanford University for propeller research and the 4.5-foot octagonal tunnel constructed in Washington in 1918 by the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) for research on air turbulence and boundary layer phenomena. In addition to accomplishing some fundamental work on aerodynamics, the NBS tunnel facility hired Hugh Dryden, who would eventually become a Director of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and in later years, Deputy Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was in its birth throes during this time period. That the United States was now an aeronautical backwater was fully realized by such prominent men as Alexander Graham Bell, Alexander Walcott (Secretary of the Smithsonian), and many members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. Support in the Academy led to the appointment of a Presidential Commission in December 1912, which was charged with investigating the desirability of a national aeronautical laboratory similar to those which had proven so successful in Europe. The Commission did recommend establishment of such a facility, but the report was buried in the archives through an organizational oversight. No governmental action was taken.

Moving ahead on their own, the regents of the Smithsonian Institution decided in 1913 to reopen Langley's old laboratory in Washington. To this end, the Smithsonian sent Albert Zahm end Jerome Hunsaker overseas to visit European aeronautical facilities with a view to duplicating them in America. The report of their trip, published in 1914, made it all too clear how far behind the United States was in aeronautical research. In February 1915, the Smithsonian regents submitted to Congress a "memorial on the need for a National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics." Appropriate NACA enabling legislation was subsequently enacted as a rider to the Naval Appropriation Act, signed March 3, 1915.

The responsibility of the new NACA was to " supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight, with a view to their practical solution...." The act also provided for the construction of aeronautical research facilities, and a laboratory site was established in 1917 near Hampton, Virginia, on Chesapeake Bay. Fittingly, it was named Langley Field.

The original plan called for a joint Army-Navy-NACA experimental airfield, but the American entry into World War I caused the military services to abandon this idea. However, NACA persevered with its plan and immediately began constructing a laboratory building at Langley Field. It also began drawing up plans for its first wind tunnel.

The First NACA Annual Report to Congress demonstrated that the Committee members saw the future with surprising clarity:

The Committee is of the opinion that aeronautics has made such rapid strides that 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.