The NACA and New Research Laboratories in World War II

NACA LogoAs the United States moved into the World War II era its military forces called upon the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) as never before to provide the aeronautical technology necessary to win the war. It was not easy for the NACA to rise to this challenge. It had never been a traditional government agency.  It was a committee and suffered from all the problems and benefited from all of the positive attributes of such an organization.  Most significantly, it had no firm line of authority, and this meant that it was something of a stepchild in the world of U.S. government organizations.

The NACA, established in 1915,  also possessed no really unique place in the aeronautical world; it had a function to be sure, but just what form that function might take and for whom the function was performed were open questions. The NACA had fought a series of bureaucratic skirmishes over these issues almost from its inception, but they arose again in the latter 1930s as the nation prepared for possible war. The Committee’s mission began to be an issue in the fall of 1938 when Robert A. Millikin, head the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, California Institute of Technology (GALCIT), in Pasadena, California, asked the federal government for help in expanding his facility’s research capability to keep pace with military research requirements.

This request aroused a longstanding NACA bugaboo. The Committee had fought long and hard for its role as a research institution, and had made its reputation on the basis of “fundamental research” not specifically oriented toward an aircraft design. While Millikin conceded the “fundamental research” mission to the NACA, he opened the larger question of just what research the government should fund and by implication, the Committee’s role in that research. He also stirred up several members of Congress and leaders of several government agencies to consider these issues anew. Major General Henry H. Arnold, who took over following Oscar Westover’s death in September 1939 as Chief of the Army Air Corps, advocated dividing aeronautical research into three segments, with the NACA having primacy in only one part, basic research on fundamentals of flight.

HHap Arnold

Hap Arnold

Applied research would be conducted by military laboratories and the manufacturers for the “application of new aerodynamic theories, principles, and discoveries to the particular problems of military aircraft.” “Production research,” Arnold thought, should be “conducted in the facilities available at Universities or other private or civilian institutions in the vicinity of the manufacturer concerned.” While Arnold believed that the NACA could coordinate some of this research, he wanted to minimize its role.

The GALCIT proposal, and the consideration that it engendered in Washington, forced the NACA into a defensive posture. The Committee had always tried to define its work in such a way that it had a broad primary mission duplicated by no other agency, public or private. Millikin and Arnold and some congressmen struck at an Achilles heel in the organization, as well as a tender nerve, in suggesting that the NACA had a role in aeronautical research only in certain specific “basic” aspects.

All of this discussion came together in a unique way. The NACA’s true strength since the 1920s had been its basic research in aerodynamics, made possible by several wind tunnels at its Langley research facility. It had appropriately focused its research in areas that prompted the best use of its unique resources, particularly the wind tunnels, and it had hired or developed leading aerodynamists to work for the Committee. To give GALCIT a government-sponsored wind tunnel was to arm a potential rival with a means of competing directly with the NACA. It also would foster the primacy of GALCIT as the chief supplier of research services to the West Coast aircraft industry. The NACA’s leadership was certainly not interested in doing that, but it could not say so directly and searched for another reason to kill the proposal.

Even so, many suspected that the sound heard from the NACA about the GALCIT proposal was more like a rice bowl breaking than an honest appraisal. Congressman Carl Hinshaw of Los Angeles remarked that

There seems to be a certain feeling on the part of the NACA, which I can hardly describe, but the best way to describe it is that they would like to retain a concentration of research facilities entirely within the NACA.  They do not seem inclined to favor allowing these facilities to be spread out among the several qualified educational institutions.  I do not just know whether it is the old question of professional jealousy or the old question of expanding bureaucracy or some other queer incomprehensible angle.

Jerome C. Hunsaker, the MIT professor who was an NACA member and became its chairman in 1941, offered the conclusion that the aircraft industry indigenous to southern California wanted a wind tunnel but was not willing to build one itself.  He remarked in private: “If S. California industry wants more wind tunnel facilities, let them [sic] provide them themselves.”

These political machinations aside, the means for the NACA to defeat the GALCIT proposal without looking like an organization of bureaucratic infighters was readily at hand, and it did not take agency leaders long to employ it.  On 19 August 1938 the NACA had empowered another committee to study the feasibility of developing a second research center. This Special Committee on Future Research Facilities, chaired by Rear Admiral Arthur B. Cook, then chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics, came forward with a recommendation on 30 December 1938 to construct a new NACA facility adjacent to the Moffett Field naval air station at Sunnyvale, California. Ensconced near the West Coast aircraft industry, the new research site would be able to provide the kind of assistance to industry demanded in a potential wartime environment. It was also a preemptive strike against GALCIT. This would eventually become the Ames Research Center.

Ames Aeronautical Laboratory under construction in California in 1940.

Ames Aeronautical Laboratory under construction in California in 1940.

Why should the War Department fund the GALCIT proposal when the NACA had a facility that could provide the same research capability? John Victory wrote to a friend about this move, leaving out a discussion of the bureaucratic battle that had in part prompted the decision. “So whatever pride we may take in our present research effort,” he wrote,

we must realize that Germany has laid well a foundation for enduring supremacy in technical development.  Our plan for a second major research station at Sunnyvale was arrived at after months of sober reflection on the responsibilities facing us.  We must look not only at the present, but at the situation that will exist three years from now, ten years from now.  The present German advantage will have cumulative results with the passing of time unless America takes adequate measures to strengthen the research foundations for its air development.

Although it took some swift action on the part of the NACA to win Congressional approval, because of the crisis environment in Washington during the summer of 1939 it received permission to build the Sunnyvale laboratory.  It did so immediately and the new NACA facility opened the following year.

At the same time that the NACA was fighting a rearguard action against GALCIT and potential encroachments into its R&D prerogatives, Charles Lindbergh was asked to head another committee on research facilities, and he took the opportunity to hammer on a particular area of concern that he had registered many times before, propulsion research. In a report sent to the NACA on 19 October 1939, Lindbergh “urgently recommend[ed] that an engine research laboratory be constructed at the earliest possible date, in a location easily accessible to the aircraft-engine industry.” Quickly agreed to by the Committee, this proposal prompted a site selection committee to begin meeting under the leadership of Vannevar Bush.

Early aerial photograph of Lewis Aeronautical Laboratory, now Glenn Research Center.

Early aerial photograph of Lewis Aeronautical Laboratory, now Glenn Research Center.

In late 1940 it selected Cleveland, near the center of the northeastern-based engine industry, as the place for the new laboratory. The NACA had little trouble obtaining the funding for the new facility, although considerable regional politics and industrial priorities entered into the episode, and in 1941 construction began. This became what is now the Glenn Research Center.

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One Response to The NACA and New Research Laboratories in World War II

  1. Pingback: The Great NACA Fact-Finding Trip to Germany in 1936, and its Results | Roger Launius's Blog

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