Edward P. Warner and the Transformation of Aeronautics in America

 The only NACA staff member ever to serve on the Main Committee, Edward P. Warner was chief physicist at the Langley laboratory in that facility's early days before returning to the NACA as a member from 1929 to 1954.

The only NACA staff member ever to serve on the Main Committee, Edward P. Warner was chief physicist at the Langley laboratory in that facility’s early days before returning to the NACA as a member from 1929 to 1954.

I have been researching the history of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and compiling biographical information on several of the early leaders of the organization. Edward Pearson Warner (1894-1958) is one of those key people. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Warner became one of the foremost American aeronautical engineers, consultants, writers, and educators of the first half of the twentieth century. Although not a famous flyer or aviation corporate executive, during the last forty years of his life few in the U.S. were more important in shaping the course of aviation.

From his position as assistant secretary of the navy for aeronautics (1926-1929); editor of Aviation (1929-1934); committee member of the NACA (1919-1920, 1929-1945); and chair of the interim council (1945-1947) and then president of the International Civil Aviation Organization (1947-1957), Warner fundamentally influenced virtually every policy decision affecting aviation.

Warner charted a path toward aeronautics in 1911 when he and a friend won a soaring competition in Boston; Warner designed a glider and his friend piloted it. Warner went on to Harvard University, receiving a B.A. in engineering with honors in 1916. He then pursued additional work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), earning a B.S. and then and M.A. in 1919.

After a short time as an employee of the recently created NACA in 1919-1920, Warner returned to MIT as an associate professor of aeronautical engineering. He stayed at MIT for the next six years, attaining the rank of full professor. While at MIT Warner was member of the faculty involved in teaching in Dr. Jerome C. Hunsaker’s pioneering aeronautical engineering curriculum. Known as a no-nonsense, staccato-style lecturer, his students both feared and respected him.

It should come as no surprise that few students were upset when the demanding professor left MIT in 1926 to become the assistant secretary of the navy for aeronautics, a position he held until 1929. In this position, Warner shaped the course of naval aviation, bringing to fruition plans that had been gestating for several years for the development of ship-based air power. During his tenure, the aircraft carriers Lexington and Saratoga entered service. Warner was tireless in his quest for additional funding for naval aviation, expanding facilities, personnel, and operations. But he also took time to continue his academic studies. In 1927 Warner published his first book, Aerostatistics, quickly followed the same year by Aeroplane Design: Aerodynamics, an important textbook for a generation of aeronautical engineers.

Warner left federal service in 1929 to become the editor of Aviation, the premier U.S. periodical dedicated to flight. He had already made a name for himself as a writer not only of technical papers, several of which he published while at MIT, but also as a thoughtful policy analyst and popular writer on aviation for such publications as the Christian Science Monitor.

Taking a leave of absence from his editorial post in 1934-1935, Warner returned to government service as vice-chair of the Federal Aviation Commission. This blue ribbon commission had been appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to review the structure of aviation in the U.S. and to make recommendations for legislation. At stake were the twin issues of air carrier regulation and airmail service. Warner, who drafted much of the final report, recommended the creation of an overarching organization to regulate air commerce, to establish and operate airways, and to set safety standards and investigate accidents. This was made a reality when the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 (Public Law 75-706) signed into law in July 1938, creating the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) and the Air Safety Board.

When this work was finished, Warner did not return to Aviation, but began an engineering consulting business. Among other projects, between 1935 and 1938 Warner worked with the Douglas Aircraft Company on the first practical four-engine transport aircraft, the DC-4. He was especially perceptive in taking general descriptions of desirable flying qualities provided by pilots and converting them into the exacting specifications required by engineers. In 1936 Warner also rewrote his classic text and published it under a new title, Aeroplane Design: Performance. Most important, Warner included in this book a calculation, later known as the Warner K speed formula, which allowed designers and engineers to compute the performance of specific aircraft.

Edward P. Warner (seated) in 1939 during his time at the CAA.

Edward P. Warner (seated) in 1939 during his time at the CAA.

In 1938 Warner again reentered federal service, this time as an economic and technical advisor to the Civil Aeronautics Authority. A year later he was appointed a formal member of the authority. In 1940 some of the functions of the CAA were split, particularly those of rate setting and policy formulation for scheduled air carriers, and vested in a new entity, the Civil Aeronautics Board. Warner moved over to serve on this board and by 1941 he had been called as its vice-chairman. He held that post until the end of World War II.

Edward Warner addressing First ICAO Assembly held in Montreal in 1946.

Edward Warner addressing First ICAO Assembly held in Montreal in 1946.

While working on the CAA Warner had been exposed to some of the issues affecting international aeronautics, and began to take greater interest in the policy considerations than ever before. It was appropriate, therefore, that he headed the interim council of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an organization answering to the United Nations, between 1945 and 1947. When the ICAO was institutionalized in 1947, Warner became its first president and served for a decade. This organization, which grew from 26 to 70 member nations during his tenure, was involved in a variety of international aviation issues from establishing procedures for diplomatic clearances for overflight and landing to establishing standards for air traffic control and the transfer of flight information around the globe.

Warner retired in 1957 and died at his home in Duxbury, Massachusetts, the next year.  His career had been significant not only because his contributions to the engineering of aircraft, but also because of his efforts to structure and executive rational aviation policy both in the United States and throughout the world.

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