John J. Ide: The NACA’s “Spy” in Pre-WWII Europe


On 17 December 1936, the NACA Executive Committee met at the home of Orville Wright, after which it posed out front with the host in the front row, center NACA's technical assistant in Europe, John J. Ide, an infrequent attender of NACA meetings, is in the center of the back row between John Victory and George Lewis.

On 17 December 1936, the NACA Executive Committee met at the home of Orville Wright, after which it posed out front with the host in the front row, center NACA’s technical assistant in Europe, John J. Ide, an infrequent attender of NACA meetings, is in the center of the back row between John Victory and George Lewis.

Most people have never heard of John Jay Ide (Jun. 20, 1892-Jan. 12, 1962), who was an international aviation pioneer and European representative for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Born at Narragansett Pier, Rhode Island, he was the son of Rear Admiral George E. Ide of the U.S. Navy, and Alexandra Bruen Ide. Ide was the great-grandson of John Jay, early national diplomat and first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

John Ide attended the Browning School in New York City, and upon graduation from Columbia University in 1913 he received a certificate in architecture. He then studied architecture at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris for the next year before returning to New York to work as an architect. When the United States entered World War in 1917, Ide enlisted in the Naval Reserve Flying Corp and rose to the rank of lieutenant. He also took the opportunity to court and marry Dora Browning Donner of Philadelphia, the daughter of philanthropist and steel financier William Henry Donner.

It was during his service in the Navy that Ide became interested in aviation, especially its technological development. His language skills and familiarity with the culture of Europe and especially that of France, helped Ide land an appointment in 1921 as the European representative for the NACA. Spending much of that time also as the air attache at the U.S. embassy in both Paris and London, Ide was well-positioned to aid the NACA in maintaining currency in European aviation advances.

From those posts Ide participated in several early international conferences in Europe, drafting air laws and regulations for international commercial aviation. Through his efforts, for the first time in 1928 the American aviation industry began to participate in European air shows and exhibitions.

Ide’s greatest achievement for the NACA, however, came in the latter half of the 1930s when he kept the agency and the U.S. government as a whole informed of aeronautical developments in Hitler’s Germany. The NACA was a sleepy institution until the first part of 1936 when Ide fired off an alarming report on the state of aeronautical science in Europe. Ide, the sometime technology expert, sometime intelligence analyst, and sometime expatriate socialite, reported on greatly increased aeronautical research activities in Great Britain, France, Italy, and especially Germany. He observed that new and quite modern wind tunnels were being erected to aid in the development of higher performing aircraft and suggested that the NACA review its own equipment to determine if it met contemporary demands.

Ide enlisted the assistance of Charles A. Lindbergh, an executive NACA committee member living in seclusion in England, to confirm his findings. Because of this, the NACA’s 1936 report commented on the arms race in Europe and concluded that “increased recognition abroad of the value and of the vital necessity of aeronautical research has led to recent tremendous expansion in research programs and to multiplication of research facilities by other progressive nations. Thus has the foundation been laid for a serious challenge to America’s present leadership in the technical development of aircraft.”

Because of these developments, Ide wangled an invitation to Germany for several NACA leaders to tour its aeronautical research facilities in 1936. While there Ide and other NACA leaders toured with Dr. Adolph Baeumker, the German government’s R&D head, several aeronautical facilities and they were both impressed and disquieted by their discoveries. They learned that Luftwaffe chief and Hitler stalwart Hermann Goering was “intensely interested in research and development.”

With Goering’s support Baeumker greatly expanded aeronautical R&D, decentralizing it at three major stations: one for research on new aircraft, one for fundamental research without application to specific aircraft designs, and one for the development of new propulsion systems. It was a powerful combination, especially when Reichmarks were flowing to fund accelerated experimentation. To maintain American primacy in aviation, Ide realized, the nation should immediately start the NACA’s expansion. Accordingly during the next five years the NACA built two new research laboratories and expanded its activities in other ways as a counter to German aviation development.

Among the new facilities won by the NACA during World War II was towing tank #2. Here, two workers set up a model for test in the new tank. The illusion that they are, suspended in space was created by printing the photograph upside down.

Among the new facilities won by the NACA during World War II was towing tank #2. Here, two workers set up a model for test in the new tank. The illusion that they are, suspended in space was created by printing the photograph upside down.

With war clouds gathering around the world, in 1940 the U.S. Navy recalled Ide to active duty, commissioning him as a lieutenant commander and placing him in command of the Foreign Intelligence Branch of the Bureau of Aeronautics in Washington. He served in that post until 1943, when the Federal government appointed him a Tactical Air Intelligence Officer in Europe. In this capacity Ide helped to survey at the conclusion of the war in Europe the aeronautical capabilities of the defeated Nazi Germany.

Although mustered out of active military duty with the rank of Navy Captain in late 1945, Ide remained in Europe as representative for the NACA for the next five years. There he continued the work he had undertaken in 1921 as a representative for the organization as a conduit for technical information about the development of aviation technology on the continent. He retired from that position in 1950.

John Ide returned to the United States soon after retirement from the NACA, residing in New York City. He was socially prominent in that city, as well as in Washington, D.C., and Palm Beach, Florida. He served in a variety of honorary positions during this period, vice president of the International Aeronautic Federation, president of the International Sporting Commission, board member of the National Aeronautic Association, trustee of the Museum of the City of New York, manager of the American Bible Society, and a vestryman of the St. Bartholomew’s Protestant Episcopal Church in New York.

Ide returned to France in 1958 to present a plaque to commemorate the site in Paris where John Jay participated in the signing of the peace treaty between Britain and the United States in 1783 that ended the American Revolution. He died at his Park Avenue home in New York City on Jan. 12, 1962, at age 69.

This entry was posted in aeronautics, aviation, History, Politics, World War II and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s