JOURNEY IN AERONAUTICAL RESEARCH: A Career at NASA Langley Research Center

Monographs in Aerospace History, Number 12

 

 

CHAPTER 3

Setting for the Research Work at Langley

 

 

[17] It is well known to those who worked at the NACA in its early years that little attempt was made to publicize the activities of the organization outside the circle of interested parties in the military services and the aeronautical industry. As a result, the general public was largely unaware of the existence of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory or of the work conducted there. Inasmuch as all the work described herein was conducted in this location and setting, a brief description of the origin and history of the center may be useful in understanding the development and progress of the organization.

 

History

 

The NACA, or National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, was established by Congress in 1915 to encourage the development of aviation in the United States. From the standpoints of both research and industrial development, progress in aviation in this country was far behind that in the warring nations of Europe. The organization established by Congress to correct this situation was an independent government agency reporting directly to the President. The main governing body of the organization, often referred to as the Main Committee of the NACA, consisted of about 20 men representing the military services, the aircraft industry, and universities and research organizations. These officials served without compensation and met two or three times a year. One of the specified objectives of the committee was to establish a center for aeronautical research.

The Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory was established in 1917 on Langley Field, already a base for the Army Air Corps that had been established in April 1917. Langley Field, now Langley Air Force Base, is located in Hampton, Virginia. Hampton, in turn, is on the Virginia Peninsula, which is a strip of land bounded by the James and York Rivers that extends down to the entrance of the Chesapeake Bay.

By 1920, the first research facilities were in place and aeronautical research was started with an initial complement of 4 professionals and 11 technicians. Before describing the later developments, some information on the features of this location are presented.

 

Description of Surroundings

 

Many historical areas are located on the Peninsula, including Jamestown, the first English settlement in the United States, which dates from 1607. Hampton is known as the first permanent English settlement [18] in the United States. Other nearby towns dating from colonial times are Williamsburg and Yorktown.

When I arrived at Hampton in 1940, it was a town of about 7000 people. The main industries of the local population were fishing and crabbing. Many more people were located in the surrounding area of Elizabeth City County. Hampton was later incorporated as a city taking in the surrounding area. The other large city on the Peninsula was Newport News, adjacent to Hampton. It had a much larger population at that time. Its principal industry was the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company.

Langley Field was selected as the site of the research center for the NACA because of the availability of the airfield; the distance from Washington was large enough to avoid political interference, but close enough to allow convenient travel; and the weather was suitable for flight research. Records had shown that Langley Field had more clear days per year than any other base on the East Coast.

The early 1940's included the occurrence of WW II, a period of tremendous expansion at Langley and of the aircraft industry in general. I have prepared an article, "Recollections of Langley Memorial Aero Lab in the Forties," that describes the activities during this period (ref. 3.1). A summary of some aspects of the social life and the surroundings at Langley and in the town of Hampton, Virginia, where it is located, may be helpful in setting the stage for the type of work done during the subsequent years.

In 1940, the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory was still quite a small center with fewer than 750 employees. Early employees at the Laboratory have told what an isolated and provincial place Hampton was when the NACA first started operations in the early 1920's. The first few engineers met with considerable animosity from the local population and the lack of any social or cultural activities made life difficult, especially for the wives. By 1940, when I arrived, these conditions had largely disappeared. I found life extremely happy and exciting, particularly since this was my first experience living away from home and without the rigorous routine of studying at MIT. The small size of the Laboratory meant that most of the employees knew a good number of the staff personally and the small social groups and organizations that had formed made for a pleasant social life as well as providing for a good interchange of research ideas.

To a large extent, the employees made their own social activities. The only professional society, the Engineers Club, was founded in 1940 and put on excellent programs. There was a very active model airplane club, an item of importance to me, since this had been my main hobby before coming to Langley. The NACA hired about 100 expert model builders, starting about 1938. A special Civil Service Exam for which the only requirement was that the applicant should have won a model airplane contest was used to select the model builders. Those selected were employed in model shops or instrument shops, and later many of them rose to high positions at Langley. After arriving here, these model builders kept up their interest in model airplanes by holding regular club meetings and large contests. Langley engineers gave advice to the modelers and officials took an active part in sponsoring and awarding prizes at contests.

The NACA Tennis Club had been started in the 1920's and had six clay courts made by rolling the local soil, which proved very satisfactory for the purpose.

A social organization called the "Noble Order of the Green Cow" put on dances for the employees. These dances were often held at the Hampton Armory and were very well attended.

During the 1930's, quite a few engineers flew their own light planes. This activity, of course, ended with the start of the war except for the Civil Air Patrol. There were at least three private airports in the nearby cities of Hampton and Newport News.

[19] Because of the location on a peninsula, water sports were popular. Many NACA engineers became members of the Hampton Yacht Club and engaged in the club activities.

Golf was also available with clubs at Hampton and Yorktown. The Yorktown golf course was quite interesting because it was located on a Revolutionary War battlefield. Later, this course was closed because the Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, ruled that this was not a suitable activity for a national monument. I felt that I learned more about Revolutionary War history by playing golf among the fortifications and redoubts, however, than by reading books on the subject.

This seemingly ideal situation at Langley was interrupted by WW II. With the entrance of the country into the war following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the work at the Laboratory took on a new urgency. The work week was increased from 44 to 48 hours, which required a full day of work on Saturdays. In addition, the imposition of gas rationing prevented much travel. Everyone worked very hard during the war. The increased work load also required a tremendous expansion in facilities and personnel. Before describing this expansion, however, I will review some of my first research assignments at Langley.

 

First Assignments in Flight Research

 

In my previous acquaintance with the work at Langley, I had learned that most of the research was performed in wind tunnels. Certainly my previous experience, particularly with the Junior Aviation League wind tunnel and the boundary-layer research of my bachelor's thesis, would have ideally prepared me for wind-tunnel work. Nevertheless, I gladly accepted the assignment to the Flight Research Division. The decision to place me in this division certainly had a profound effect on my subsequent career. Most

of the wind tunnels have a specific purpose and range of airspeed. A person assigned to a wind tunnel would naturally become a specialist in the particular research objectives of that facility and, if so inclined, would contribute to the theory involved in that phase of research. Flight research, however, involves all types of aeronautical problems. The research engineer must have a knowledge of such diverse fields as structures, aerodynamics, loads, performance, and stability and control. As a result, I became a generalist, with less than complete knowledge in most fields, but better acquainted than most young engineers with the research work being performed at all the facilities at the Laboratory.

The working conditions were also very desirable, both in terms of personnel and facilities. The head of the division when I started work was John W. (Gus) Crowley, Jr. who had performed much early flight research and later became Chief of Aerodynamics at NASA Headquarters. Second in command was Floyd L. Thompson, who became Director of Research and later held the positions of Associate Director and Director of Langley. The division was divided into sections entitled Aircraft Loads, Performance, Helicopters, and Flight Research Maneuvers. The latter title was later changed to Stability and Control. I was assigned to the Flight Research Maneuvers Section under Robert R. Gilruth, who had just started work three years earlier, but was already recognized for his outstanding ability to direct research. He later became director of the Johnson Space Center during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs and the initial stages of the Space Shuttle program.

The facility available for flight research consisted of the Flight Research Hangar, stocked with about 15 to 20 airplanes of all types, such as light airplanes, transports, and the latest military airplanes including both fighters and bombers. Mechanics were available to maintain the airplanes and to install special research equipment. Recording instrumentation had been developed from the first...

 

 


[
20]

FIGURE 3.1.

FIGURE 3.1. Airplanes being tested at the NACA Flight Research Hangar in 1944.

 

...days of the NACA and was operated by technicians skilled in its use and installation.

These airplanes were flown by test pilots. The job of the Flight Research Engineer was to plan the flight tests, analyze the instrument data, and prepare reports on the results. I particularly enjoyed working in the offices that were located on the airfield side of the hangar, which allowed a clear view of the takeoffs and landings of all the military and research airplanes. Later, however, an additional hangar was built and the offices were moved to the other side.

A photograph of the airplanes that were tested in the Flight Research Division in 1944 is shown in figure 3.1. This photograph was taken after the construction of the second hangar.

With this background, I will proceed to describe some of the early work that I did at Langley. I will not attempt to give a chronological account of my activities, which would become confusing because of the overlapping of many jobs. Instead, I will single out some of the more important categories of research and collect the activities that fall under these headings. To make the discussions more understandable to persons not trained in aeronautical engineering, I start with a brief discussion of the history of the discipline and definitions of the technical terms used.


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