The Beginnings of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory

The first meeting of the main committee of the NACA in 1915.

The first meeting of the main committee of the NACA in 1915.

We are approaching in 2017 the centennial of the founding of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (LMAL) by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), at Hampton, Virginia. Now NASA’s Langley Research Center this facility transformed aeronautics in the United States with its path-breaking research. It seems appropriate to reflect on this history as we approach this anniversary.

While the establishment of a laboratory had not been explicitly authorized in the NACA charter of 1915, it also contained no proscription against it. This left NACA officials with an entrée for the creation of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. For instance, NACA officials observed in the New-York Tribune on December 16, 1915: “If the committee is to be prepared to keep pace with the needs of the very rapid development already under way, stimulated by the unusual conditions existing in Europe, the facilities and technical assistance recommended are essential.” Accordingly, the agency received license to establish such a research facility.

Almost immediately NACA officials began scouting for an appropriate location for its new laboratory, deciding to collocate it with a new U.S. Army airfield near Norfolk, Virginia. Both the military and the NACA facilities were named after the Smithsonian’s former secretary, Samuel Pierpont Langley, in honor of his contributions to aeronautics. Both the Army Air Service and the NACA installation shared the same runways. NACA director of research George Lewis commented about this location:

It has large areas of cleared land now under cultivation. The removal of a few trees, fences, and a little brush would give a clear field 2 miles or more in length by a half a mile in width. This area could be increased materially by the cutting of a few small groves of trees and brush. Most of the area under consideration for a site is about from 4 to 6 feet above mean tide, and where not naturally well drained, could be drained without undue expense. The requirements being so fully met by the area north of Hampton, your committee strongly recommends that this site be secured as soon as practicable.

The Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1920.

The Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1920.

That rosy picture, however, masked difficulties with construction. Construction began in 1917, a body-crushing effort in the marshlands on the coast. Author Thomas Wolfe, famous for his largely autobiographical novel, Look Homeward Angel, worked on the construction crew as a young man. He remembered the toil of “grading, leveling, blasting from the spongy earth the ragged stumps of trees and filling interminably, ceaselessly, like the weary and fruitless labor of a nightmare, the marshy earth-craters, which drank their shoveled-toil without end.” One Army observer described it as a “nature’s…cesspool” comprised of “the muddiest mud, the weediest weeds, the dustiest dust, and the most ferocious mosquitoes the world has ever known.” The work was more than difficult, it proved deadly; between September 1918 and January 1919 46 members of the work crews died from influenza. Because of this, the NACA chose “to limit the personnel at the laboratory to that required for the laboratory operations alone.”

Finally opened on for business on June 11, 1920, the first facilities at Langley were less than impressive—a small atmospheric wind tunnel, a dynamometer laboratory, an administration building, and a small warehouse. With that opening, the Langley laboratory—which still had only 100 employees by 1925—began to pursue pure research, mostly related to aerodynamics. The first Langley director, Henry J.E. Reid, served in that capacity from 1920 to 1960, spanning the entire career of the facility from establishment until after it had become part of NASA. With its formal opening, Langley served as an enormously important government research and development organization, materially enhanc­ing the development of aeronautics.

Those who experienced the NACA during that early era remembered it in idyllic terms. It was a tiny organization, it numbered only 43 people at the establishment of the LMAL, but would grow thereafter. Researchers were able to develop their own research programs along lines that seemed to them the most productive, handle all test details in-house, and carry out experiments as they believed appropriate. The day-to-day operations of the agency were decidedly informal, staff hob-nobbed together in social settings and any individual had access to the most senior leadership in the agency. Langley’s director held the official title of “Engineer-in-Charge,” eschewing hierarchy and creating an aura of collegial relations both in rhetoric and fact. This sense of freedom made it possible to recruit some of the most innovative aeronautical engineers in the world. They knew they were valued, that they had freedom to pursue research that could revolutionize the field, and that they personally could make a difference. While the NACA as an organization would become more formalized over time, it remained committed to fostering creativity and innovation.

Howard Morris in the old Instrument Shop in the first floor of the old LMAL administration building taken in February 1922.

Howard Morris in the old Instrument Shop in the first floor of the old LMAL administration building taken in February 1922.

The NACA as it emerged in the 1920s was a small, loosely organized, and elitist non-bureaucracy that provided aeronautical research services on an basis equally available to all. An exceptionally small headquarters staff in Washington—so small in fact that it could be housed in a corner of the Navy Building—oversaw the political situation and secured funding for research activities. A committee of appointees from a range of engineering fields served without pay, making it one of the most nontraditional organizations of the federal government.

During the 1920s the NACA built a balanced research staff at Langley 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. They developed and made use of various types of wind tunnels—variable density, full scale, refrigerated, free flight, gust, transonic, and supersonic—the core instruments the NACA engineers employed to advance aerodynamic knowledge.

It began modestly but evolved rapidly.

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