William F. Durand (1859-1958) was one of the leading lights in American aeronautics in the first half of the twentieth century. He was also one of several individuals who made the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) a reality, an historical investigation that I have been working on for the one-hundredth anniversary of the agency in 2015.
Durand had been an internationally known teacher and researcher in aeronautical propulsion for decades before the birth of the NACA. He made enormous contributions to the development of flight, fired the enthusiasm of the first generation of aeronautical engineers involved in aviation research, and virtually created the aeronautical engineering program at Stanford University. His career spanned more than five decades of aircraft research and development, where his efforts helped to establish the principles of propulsion used on aircraft reciprocating engines and later on jet aircraft.
Durand was born on March 5, 1859, in Bethany, Connecticut, the son of William L. and Ruth Coe Durand, local business people. Educated in the public schools, Durand was a good student and entered the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1876, long before aviation became a technological possibility. He did well at Annapolis, and upon graduation in 1880 he entered the Naval engineering corps and worked on the problems of marine engineering. Successful as a Navy engineering, the service sent him to work on a Ph.D. in the field, and he graduated from Lafayette College in 1888. In the midst of this effort, in 1887 Durand resigned his commission and accepted an academic post at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Michigan as a professor of mechanical engineering. He remained there until 1891 when he moved to Cornell University to teach marine engineering.
In 1904 Durand moved to Leland Stanford Jr. University on the West Coast, ostensibly to teach mechanical engineering but he soon became involved in the new technology of airplanes and began studying the problems of flight. During the next several years Durand created an aeronautical engineering curriculum at Stanford that became one of the best in the nation. By 1915 both Durand personally and his department at Stanford collectively had been recognized as leaders in solving the problems of flight.
When the United States created the NACA in 1915 “to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight, with a view to their practical solution” Durand was appointed a member of the committee in 1915 and served until 1933. He served a second term between 1941 and 1945. Durand also chaired the committee in 1917-1918.
Over the years most of the research conducted under NACA auspices was done in its own facilities, but until the first was constructed in 1918 the committee let contracts to educational institutions. Durand’s research team at Stanford led all other contractors with its NACA experimentation with propellers. This would have been considered a conflict-of-interest at a different time, but in the midst of World War I and the lax regulatory environment of the era no one questioned it. This and other contracts paid off, the NACA’s research on aircraft engines was the first major success of the organization and helped develop the Liberty Engine, the major contribution the U.S. made to aeronautics in World War I.
On September 12, 1925, President Calvin Coolidge appointed a board headed by Dwight W. Coolidge, a New York Banker, to study the use of aircraft in national defense. Among the members was William Durand, who lent considerable experience and expertise in aeronautics to its deliberations. The board held hearings and found that there was little agreement about how many usable aircraft the Army Air Service had, and while it rejected the most strident claims of air power its report of November 30, 1925, recommended appointing two additional airmen as brigadier generals, one to head procurement and the other to command the flying schools.
The board also recommended increased appropriations for the training of airmen and the development of modern airplanes. Finally, the board recommended changing the name of the Army Air Service to Air Corps. In response Congress passed the Air Corps Bill of 1926 to formalize many of these recommendations. This action set the stage for the creation of the modern military air arm that emerged in World War II.
In addition to serving on the Morrow Board, Durand participated in numerous other technical committees and advisory boards employed by a wide range of government entities. For instance, in 1929 he was a member of the advisory board of engineers for the Boulder Dam project, an enormously significant effort that brought much greater supplies of water and electricity to the American southwest. He was also a member of the National Research Council 1915-1945, and chair of the Navy Department’s Special Committee on Airship Design and Construction in 1935.
Perhaps no technological innovation has been more significant for the development of aviation of all types than the turbojet engine. A relatively simple engine in its principals, the jet required a unique combination of metallurgical capability, cooling and velocity control, and an unconventional understanding of Newton’s third law of motion. Unfortunately, no U.S. researchers had solved the jet propulsion problem and the nation was left far behind in jet development by Great Britain and Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. It had to make a crash effort in the 1940s, in some cases literally, and get help from the British, to catch up with developments elsewhere.
Because of this situation, which Hap Arnold, chief of staff of the Army Air Forces, early in 1941 asked the NACA to mobilize to work on the development of jet propulsion. One of the most important propulsion experts in the U.S. was Durand and in March 1941 the NACA created a special committee under his leadership to study jet propulsion in 1941. This group specifically omitted aircraft reciprocating industry representatives because they were economically wedded to the propeller. It did include representatives from firms involved in turbine development: Allis Chalmers, Westinghouse, and General Electric.
Under Durand’s direction this special committee met seven times in five months and made several recommendations. The most significant of these was that the military award study contracts on jet propulsion to three firms with promising ideas on the subject. The firms were Allis Chalmers, Westinghouse, and General Electric. Once again, the question of conflict-of-interest has to be raised, but Durand’s committee was never intended to be democratic. Perhaps any criticism could be blunted with the statement that the U.S. effort was involved in a crash effort to catch up with European developments in aeronautics in the desperate early days of the second world war. In actuality, Durand’s efforts were important for the development of the jet engine and its application to military aircraft near the end of World War II.
Durand had been recognized as a leading authority in aeronautics from the 1910s, but in the postwar era he was especially revered as the sage of the discipline. He received all manner of awards from government, industry, and foundations for his contributions to the development of aviation in America. He died at age 99 on August 9, 1958, just as the space age was dawning.