Airpower has a heart

by John Paul Andrews

Too often, in discussions regarding aeronautical progress, engineers and designers are given most of the credit for advances. Yet thousands of worthless aeronautical patents indicate that engineering alone cannot build a military or civil air force. In times of war, many of us credit the nation's flying strength to the aircraft industry, realizing that ideas on the drawing board have never shattered a single enemy installation. Yet thousands of obsolete airplanes and engines give evidence that quantity without quality cannot bring air superiority. So apparently aviation, like the human body, must have a heart — a circulatory organ which brings the brain of science and the brawn of industry to bear on every aeronautical development. In America, that heart is the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which with its laboratories in Ohio, Virginia, and California has been linking the drawing board and the flying line for more than thirty years. Here, in a defense plant so vital that no public visitor has entered the doors since several months before Pearl Harbor, the Aviation Writers Association recently watched a corps of engineers at work on an ice-resisting cowling for Army transport planes — pure research, if such is possible, for NACA has no financial interest in any company, can gain nothing more than personal satisfaction through improvement of any plane. In another laboratory, two white-coated chemists were blending, testing, analyzing, and re-blending unbranded aviation gasoline in quest of vaporization economy in Boeing B-29s, which may lose as much as 450,000 gallons of fuel on a single 500-plane Tokyo raid at high altitude. Another crew methodically tears down German V-1 robot bombs, then rebuilds them in the American way to turn Japan's one-time Axis partner against the Nipponese homeland. Meanwhile, a special tunnel is icing Bell P-39s at -60° F, overspeed rig chambers are spinning turbo wheels until they shatter from centrifugal force, jet engines are running on fuels ranging almost from creamery butter to lighter fluid, and engine cylinders are heated till they melt. Where other war plants specialize in construction, this tight little band of 800 engineers and scientists concentrates on destruction, making better planes for tomorrow by breaking up the planes of today.

Moreover, the NACA laboratories are working with an intensity all out of proportion to the size of their force and budget. There are, for instance, 200 separate projects in the works right now, with an average of only four professional men on each job. No war-baby which rests on penny-ante research during peaceful days, the Committee has been compiling priceless data ever since its authorization by Congress in 1915 to such an extent that its wind tunnels, test cells, and flight research equipment have influenced the design of every domestic airplane in the air today. It is unlikely that fifteen men — the Committee embraces men from the Army, Navy, all other government agencies concerned with aeronautics, and several private scientists — have ever directed a bigger job in the history of science. With a variety of research specialists working under the chairmanship of Dr Jerome C Hunsaker and the laboratory leadership of Dr George W Lewis, the Committee's physical facilities have grown apace with aviation. The original Langley Field research station at Hampton, VA, has been enlarged and improved through the years until it stands today as the largest, best-equipped laboratory of its kind in the world. To meet the extraordinary technological demands of air war, a second aerodynamics laboratory was established at Moffett Field, CA, during the early days of our national defense program, while the elaborate engine research facility de- scribed was fashioned from not-too-fertile acreage adjoining Cleveland's Municipal Airport at about the same time.

That NACA research has gone far beyond the test tube and wind-tunnel model stage is perhaps best evidenced by the size and scope of equipment now in use. It requires a total of 130,000 hp to drive the test equipment in the engine research laboratories while an additional 50,000 hp is necessary for operation of the altitude wind tunnel. The latter unit, unmatched by anything in other parts of the world, is capable of testing complete aircraft propulsion installations under precise altitude conditions up to 30,000 feet or pressure conditions up to 50,000 feet. Developing wind velocities of 500 mph, this tunnel would require 20,000,000 pounds of ice each day to match its mechanical refrigeration system which can lower the temperature to -48° Fahrenheit.

Another unique test chamber, described quite simply as the icing research tunnel, serves the Army and Navy by investigating flight characteristics of power plants, propellers, all other components at temperatures as low as -60° Fahrenheit. Built in three sections, this tunnel can accommodate several projects at one time, with the largest section allowing tests on full-size fighters and rotary types. The fuels and lubricants labs may eventually be the open sesame to better automobiles, better heating for homes and hospitals, better living generally.

This, briefly, is an eye-witness report on the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics which is lighting a war with facts and figures. Some penny-wise, pound-foolish congressmen may challenge Government appropriations for continuance of NACA activities after the Japs are beaten. One of these men has already asked why America should foot the bill for aeronautical research when it would be cheaper to follow the scientific pioneering of the Germans, the Japs, and the Russians. The Nips, who copied aircraft and engine designs before Pearl Harbor, have already proved the fallacy and cost of such economies.

This article was originally published in the September, 1945, issue of Air News with Air Tech magazine, vol 9, no 3, pp 67-68.
The original article includes 6 captioned photos.
Photos credited to NACA.

Photo captions: