I have been researching the early history of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and decided to share some information about one of its formative leaders. Very few people today have heard of George W. Lewis (Mar. 10, 1882-Jul. 12, 1948), but he was in his time an internationally renowned aviation pioneer and chief executive of the NACA during the interwar and World War II years. This blog post is intended to give him his due, and to remind us of the difference he made in the development of aeronautical technology in the United States.
He was born at Ithaca, New York, the son of William H. and Edith Sweetland Lewis. During his early childhood his family moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania, and there he received his elementary and high school education. In 1908 he graduated from the Sibley College of Engineering, and received the degree of M.E. from Cornell University in 1908, and the degree of Master Mechanical Engineer M.M.E. in 1910. He was a member of the Swarthmore College faculty from 1910 until 1917, then became Engineer-in-charge at Clarke-Thompson Research, Philadelphia, where he remained until 1919.
Lewis, already interested in aviation, joined the NACA as Executive Officer in 1919, and became its Director of Aeronautical Research in 1924. His work in that position helped to shape in a fundamental way the course of aeronautical research and development in the United States for the next quarter century. In 1919 the NACA staff totaled only 43 people, including the research staff of NACA’s Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, located at Hampton, Virginia.
Lewis set about to expand and remake the NACA into a premier research organization by recruiting and inspiring young scientists, engineers, and mathematicians to enter federal service, usually for less pay than they could find elsewhere. He promised them, however, an opportunity to perform cutting-edge research and to try sometimes hair-brained ideas that had little immediate commercial application. His efforts worked and by the time of his retirement in 1947 the NACA enjoyed an exceptionally positive reputation for innovative aeronautical research and development.
Under his leadership the NACA built an effective, balanced, research team that pioneered novel methods of flight research; new ideas for recording instruments; and new methods and facilities for research on engines, propellers, structures, seaplanes, ice prevention, helicopters, and many other branches of aerodynamics. He developed and made use of variable density, full scale, refrigerated, free flight, gust, transonic, supersonic and other types of wind tunnels, the core instruments the NACA engineers employed to advance aerodynamic knowledge.
Lewis’ greatest challenge came in a radical expansion of the NACA in response to the rearmament of Europe beginning in the mid-1930s. Lewis personally traveled to Europe via the Zeppelin Hindenburg to investigate the aeronautical development then underway. He visited Nazi Germany and was both impressed and disquieted by its aeronautical research and development activities. He learned that Luftwaffe chief and Hitler stalwart Hermann Goering was “intensely interested in research and development.”
With Goering’s force, Germany 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 Reich marks were flowing to fund accelerated experimentation. In his report Lewis remarked:
It is apparent in Germany, especially in aviation, that everyone is working under high pressure. The greatest effort is being made to provide an adequate air fleet. Every manufacturer is turning out as many airplanes as possible, and the research and development organizations are working on problems that have an immediate bearing on this production program.
To maintain American primacy in aviation, Lewis advised, the nation should immediately start the NACA’s expansion.
Lewis followed this trip in 1939 with another that confirmed his initial impressions. He found that in just three short years since 1936 Hitler had multiplied German air research facilities until they were five times the magnitude of those available in the United States. This challenge to American leadership was clearly presented to the President and the Congress by George Lewis, who arranged also to spend May 1939 in Germany, touring the new air research facilities. In June he testified before Congress in detail, and reported the opinion of numerous German scientists and professors, that war would start before the next snow fell.
Congress approved the doubling of the NACA’s facilities and staff at Langley, and the construction of a second major NACA station, the Ames Research Center, at Moffett Field, California. A year later Congress authorized the NACA Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory at Cleveland, Ohio, later renamed the Lewis Research Center in honor of George Lewis. This facility was later renamed in honor of John Glenn, with Lewis’s name attached to the flying field.
NACA research facilities built during Lewis’ regime cost about $80,000,000 and, although often new in concept and design, proved exceptionally useful in enabling the United States to place into the air combat aircraft on a par with or superior to Axis equipment. When failing health caused him to resign as Director of Aeronautical Research in 1947, the seventeen members of NACA signed a testimonial praising Lewis for “inspiring leadership.” They declared: “…the Committee’s research organization has won the confidence and respect…of the aeronautical world, and made scientific and technical contributions of inestimable value to the national security…Our heartfelt thanks for all he has done…and congratulations for 28 years of exceptionally meritorious service to his country.”
Lewis’s health became poorer thereafter. He died at his summer home near Scranton, Pennsylvania, on Jul. 12, 1948.