March 3, 2015, was the centenary of the birth of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). This has sparked a measure of investigation and analysis about the place of the NACA in the history of flight in the twentieth century. The NACA had the mission “to separate the real from the imagined and make known the overlooked and unexpected” in the quest for flight. The NACA transformed into NASA in 1958 and has lived on as the centerpiece of American aerospace research and development (R&D). Because of this I have been thinking about the legacies of the NACA. Here are some initial thoughts on this subject. I’m sure there are other legacies that might be considered. Any comments are welcome.
- The efforts of the NACA played a major role in rescuing the United States from the doldrums of aeronautics that it fallen into during the first decade after the Wright brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk. Its establishment in 1915 served effectively as a means of focusing federal attention on the questions that needed to be answered to advance the technology. The new agency hired innovative engineers, gave them the instruments they needed to do cutting edge research (especially wind tunnels for the testing of aerodynamic systems), and both the funding (never plentiful but sufficient) and the freedom (always a critical commodity) to solve the “problems of flight.” Any history that does not recognize this critical aspect of the organization’s past is inaccurate and incomplete.
- NACA R&D fueled a revolution in aeronautics that took place in the latter 1920s and 1930s through World War II as the industry moved from canvas and wooden biplanes to metal monoplanes. Its airfoils, engines, propellers, control systems, etc. were everywhere incorporated into the aircraft of the era.
- The NACA led the effort to fly higher, farther, and faster in the post-World War II era as it entered partnerships with industry and the military services to “expand the envelope” of knowledge about flight. The famous X-plane series of research vehicles established a record of accomplishment unmatched anywhere else in the world.
- The NACA also pioneered the road to space by establishing the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD) in 1945 and systematically developing a rocket capability that helped open the door to spaceflight during the Cold War and after.
- The NACA taught America to fly smarter through a range of R&D projects that made possible the first commercial jet airliners, the first fly-by-wire capabilities, and numerous innovative aerodynamics, propulsion, materials, and guidance and control systems.
- The NACA became the basis for NASA when established in 1958. Its firm foundation provided the organizational structure for the new agency and its staff provided the bulk of its intellectual heft as NASA began operations.
- The NACA made a profound impact on the technology of flight from its creation in 1915 and should be remembered and commemorated for those contributions.