Eighty years ago a great adventure took place.
In the first part of 1936 John J. Ide, the NACA’s European representative since 1921, fired off an alarming report on the state of aeronautical science on that continent. Ide, the sometime technology expert, sometime intelligence analyst, and sometime Charles A. Lindbergh,expatriate, reported on greatly increased aeronautical research activities in Great Britain, France, Italy, and especially Germany. He observed that new and quite modern wind tunnels were being erected to aid in the development of higher performing aircraft and suggested that the NACA review its own instruments and facilities to determine if they met contemporary demands.
Charles A. Lindbergh, an NACA executive committee member living in seclusion in England, confirmed Ide’s report in a May 1936 letter to Committee chairman Dr. Joseph S. Ames. In 1936 Lewis inserted a deft warning to the government in the NACA’s annual report, commenting on the arms race in Europe that followed Hitler’s coming to power in Germany and suggesting that “increased recognition abroad of the value and of the vital necessity of aeronautical research has led to recent tremendous expansion in research programs and to multiplication of research facilities by other progressive nations. Thus has the foundation been laid for a serious challenge to America’s present leadership in the technical development of aircraft.”
Joseph S. Ames at his NACA office.
In part because of these developments and in part because of an invitation from the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei, in September-October 1936 George W. Lewis traveled to Europe via the Zeppelin Hindenburg to learn more about aeronautical development. While there he toured with Dr. Adolph Baeumker, the German government’s R&D head, several aeronautical facilities in Nazi Germany and was both impressed and disquieted by their activities.
Lewis learned that Luftwaffe chief and Hitler stalwart Hermann Goering was “intensely interested in research and development.” With Goering’s support Baeumker greatly expanded aeronautical R&D, decentralizing it at three major stations: one for research on new aircraft, one for fundamental research without application to specific aircraft designs, and one for the development of new propulsion systems. It was a powerful combination, especially when Reichmarks were flowing to fund accelerated experimentation. Lewis remarked:
It is apparent in Germany, especially in aviation, that everyone is working under high pressure. The greatest effort is being made to provide an adequate air fleet. Every manufacturer is turning out as many airplanes as possible, and the research and development organizations are working on problems that have an immediate bearing on this production program.
While “the equipment at [NACA’s] Langley Field is equal to or better than the equipment in the German research laboratories,” Lewis concluded, “the personnel of the German research laboratories is [sic] larger in number, and the engineers have had an opportunity of having special training, which has not been afforded to many of our own engineers.” To maintain American primacy in aviation, Lewis advised, the nation should immediately start the N.A.C.A.’s expansion.
An advertisement for the Hindenburg in 1936.
These epistles of warning brought moderate action by the NACA. It started in 1936 with the construction of another wind tunnel at Langley and the lengthening of a tank used for seaplane research. It obtained additional funding through a special “Deficiency Appropriation Act” to fund the construction of new facilities. It also, and these were both important and peculiarly bureaucratic decisions, created two committees to review the situation. The first was a Special Committee of Aeronautical Research Facilities with Rear Admiral Ernest J. King as chair. They were charged with surveying the research needs of the country. This group quickly responded with a detailed critique of the NACA’s capabilities and recommended rapid expansion. This found tangible expression in a greatly increased budget request for 1938, a request adopted in Congress because of the fear of war in Europe.
The NACA also established a “Special Committee on the Relation of NACA to National Defense in Time of War.” Chaired by the Chief of the Army Air Corps, Major General Oscar Westover, this special committee began operation on December 22, 1936. More than eighteen months passed before it took any action, submitting a report on 19 August 1938 that declared the NACA an essential agency in time of war to support the aviation development needs of the Army and Navy. It also said that the agency’s activities should be expanded and become an adjunct of the Aeronautical Board, while its workforce should remain largely civilian and deferrals from a draft be granted on a case by case basis.
“Such a position,” this report stated, “would [essentially] make the N.A.C.A. part of the Armed Forces.” While the agency would remain independent in a legal sense, this committee allowed that it would be “in a more subordinate position that it now enjoys.” Most important, the Westover Committee found that aeronautical R&D was being hampered by “the congested bottleneck of Langley Field” and that an additional laboratory was required to meet increasing expansion in response to the perceived foreign threat and to limit the agency’s vulnerability to attack. No doubt partly in response to the renewed emphasis in defense issues acknowledged in the April 1939 Military Appropriations Bill, this report was approved by the President as a mobilization plan for the NACA on July 29, 1939, and set the stage for the actions of the organization throughout the early 1940s.
Meantime, a real fear arose about the possibility that the United States was losing its technical edge or at least parity in military aviation because the major European powers were conducting aeronautical R&D on a wartime footing. Lindbergh again expressed his distress at advances in European aeronautics to the NACA’s Joseph S. Ames in November 1938:
Germany’s aviation progress is as rapid as ever. Her [sic] production facilities are tremendous and new factories are still being built. Germany is ever today as supreme in the air as England is at sea, and I see no sign of any other nation in Europe catching up to her. I believe we should accept the fact that Germany will continue to be the leading country in Europe in aviation. She will be the leading country in the world if we do not increase our own rate of development. Even now Germany is far ahead of us in military aviation. When she turns her present resources to the field of commercial aviation, we will have a competition such as we have never experienced in the past….the present quality of German military planes indicates what we may look forward to in the future, and necessitates our devoting much more effort to our own aviation development if we are to keep pace. To give some idea of the development which is going on there, I think I need only mention the fact that the German engineers are now thinking of speeds in the vicinity of 800 kilometres per hour at critical altitude for service airplanes. Their latest bombers are now flying at more than 500 kilometres per hour. It is really necessary to visit Germany and to see the development at first hand in order to fully realize its magnitude.
Lindbergh continued to harp on these advances in German aeronautics and to urge the NACA to redouble efforts to recapture the lead in aeronautical research and development, especially in relationship to its need to emphasize aircraft propulsion.
George Lewis explains the Plan for the new engine research laboratory to top NACA staff.
This set the stage for the creation of two additional NACA facilities formed in 1940 and 1941, these became the Ames Research Center near San Francisco, California, and the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.