n fall 1975. 10 distinguished United States Senators from the Aeronautical and Space Sciences Committee summoned a group of elite aviation experts to Washington, DC. The Senators were hold­ing hearings regarding the state of the American airline industry, which was struggling in the wake of the 1973 Arab oil embargo and the dra­matically increasing cost of fuel. Providing testimony were presidents or vice presidents of United Airlines, Boeing, Pratt & Whitney, and General Electric. Other witnesses included high-ranking officials from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the U. S. Air Force, and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Their Capitol Hill testimony painted a bleak economic picture, described in phrases that included “immediate crisis condition," “long-range trouble,” “serious danger," and “economic dislocation "‘ Fuel costs had recently risen from S2.59 to $11.65 for a barrel of oil and from 38.5 cents to 55.1 cents for a gallon of gasoline. While everyone knew about the increasing costs of fill­ing up his or her own automobile, the effect on commercial aviation was tak­ing a greater toll. The airlines industry furloughed over 25,000 employees in January 1974. Pan American, at the time the United States’ largest commer­cial airline, suspended service to 12 cities.- The president of United Airlines concluded, “The economic vitality of the industry is draining away."1

Oil was fueling America’s industrial and military might, while the majority of the world’s reserves were not under United States soil. The fuel crisis of the 1970s threatened not only the airline industry but also [1] [2] [3] the future of American prosperity itself, a situation that created a sense of panic and urgency among all Americans, from politicians on Capitol Hill to average citizens waiting in ever-longer gas lines for more expensive fuel. But the crisis also served as the genesis of technological ingenuity and innovation from a group of scientists and engineers at NASA, who initiated planning exercises to explore new fuel-saving technologies. What emerged was a series of technologically daring aeronautical programs with the potential to reduce by an astonishing 50 percent the amount of fuel used by the Nation’s commercial and military aircraft. Though the endeavor was a costly 10-year, $500-million research and development (R&D) program, the United States Senators involved proclaimed that they could not “allow this technology to lie fallow.”[4] [5] The Aircraft Energy Efficiency (ACEE) project was born.

This energy crisis of the 1970s marked a turning point for the United States in a number of ways, one of which was that it changed fundamen­tally the focus of NASA’s aeronautical research. Since its establishment in 1915 (as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) and through its transformation into NASA in 1958. the organization’s aeronautical empha­sis had been on how to research and build aircraft that would fly higher, go faster, and travel farther.’ “Higher, faster, and farther” were all visible avia­tion goals well suited for the setting of records and pushing the boundaries of engineering and piloting skill.[6] [7] According to one aviation engineer, “The dream to fly higher, faster, and farther has driven our finest engineering and science talents to achieve what many thought was impossible.”


The end of the lirst SST era (July I. 1973). A model of the Supersonic Transport (SST) variable sweep version, with wings in the low-speed position, mounted prior to tests in the Full Scale Wind Tunnel. (NASA Langley Research Center [NASA LaRC|.)

These were goals that, once achieved, could be celebrated by the pub­lic, developed by industry, and incorporated into military and commercial aviation endeavors. Sacrificing some of these capabilities in favor of fuel economy was simply unthinkable and unnecessary for roughly the first 75 years of aviation history. Fuel economy inspired no young engineers to dream impossible dreams, because fuel was simply too abundant and inexpensive to be a factor in aircraft design.

One example of what Langley engineer Joseph Chambers called the “need for speed" was the effort to create a viable supersonic civil air­craft. Business and pleasure travelers wanted to get to their destinations quickly and in comfort. The fuel efficiency of the plane they rode in rarely entered their minds. As a result, when supersonic jet technology emerged for military applications in the 1950s, managers of the commercial air trans­portation system dreamed of a similar model for commercial travelers: the Supersonic Transport (SST). However, these early and rushed attempts resulted in failed programs. Chambers said that was an “ill-fated

national effort within the United States for an SST.” which was terminated in 1971.[8]

The oil embargo in 1973 suddenly added a new focus to the aeronau­tical agenda and caused the United States to rethink its aviation priori­ties. The mantra of “higher, faster, farther” began to take a back seat to new less glamorous but more essential goals, such as conservation and efficiency. By 1976. ACEE was fully funded. Research began immedi­ately, and it became the primary response to the Nation’s crisis in the skies. ACEE consisted of six aeronautical projects divided between two NASA Centers. Three of the projects concentrated on propulsion sys­tems, and NASA assigned its management to Lewis Research Center (now Glenn Research Center) in Cleveland, OH. These included the Engine Component Improvement project to incorporate incremental and short-term changes into existing engines to make them more efficient. The Energy Efficient Engine (E:) project was much more daring; Lewis engineers worked toward developing an entirely new engine that prom­ised significant fuel economies over existing turbine-powered jet engines. Most radical of all the Lewis projects was the groundbreaking Advanced Turboprop Project (ATP), an attempt at replacing the turbojet with a much more efficient propeller. Though the Advanced Turboprop did not fly as far or as fast as its jet counterpart, it could do so at vastly improved fuel efficiencies. It was Lewis’s riskiest program and also most important in terms of fuel efficiency. It represented an odd confluence of old-fashioned and cutting-edge technology.

NASA assigned three other ACEE projects to Langley Research Center in I lampton, VA. The first was Energy Efficient Transport, an aero­dynamics and active controls project that included a variety of initiatives to reduce drag and make flight operations more efficient. A second project was the Composite Primary Aircraft Structures, which used new materi­als (such as fiberglass-reinforced plastics and graphite) to replace metal and aluminum components. This significantly decreased aircraft weight

and increased fuel efficiency. A third project. Laminar Flow Control, also promised to reduce drag, and it was Langley’s most challenging project of the three. NASA accepted the risk, much like the Advanced Turboprop, because Laminar Flow Control, if achieved, represented the most signifi­cant potential fuel savings of any of the ACEE programs.

NASA conducted two different types of R&D programs. The first was for “fundamental” or "base” research, where engineers conceptual­ized. developed, and tested initial ideas that could later lead to a success­ful commercial or military technology. Once these base programs reached a certain level of maturity and technological success, they were ready for the next R&D stage. This second, or “focused.” R&D program typi­cally required the allocation of large amounts of funding in order to create a full-scale demo. ACEE was an example of a “focused" program that utilized the success of existing “base” programs (such as Laminar Flow Control, winglets. and supercritical wings). The ACEE focused program and funding offered the best way to mature the fundamental technological successes already being developed.*

But there was a problem. The civil aircraft industry was notoriously conservative and did not often welcome change or pursue it aggressively. The ACEE program represented a dramatically different vision of future commercial flight. Although several of the programs explored slower evo­lutionary developments, the energy crisis inspired enough fear that the industry w’as willing to support the more revolutionary projects. Donald Nored, who served as director of Lewis’s three ACEE projects, remarked, “The climate made people do things that normally they’d be too conserva­tive to do."[9] [10] The Lewis Advanced Turboprop demonstrated how a radical innovation could emerge from a dense, conservative web of bureaucracy. Its proponents thought it would revolutionize the world’s aircraft propulsion systems. Likew ise. Langley’s programs also pushed revolutionary new tech­nologies such as Laminar Flow Control, which many believed was impos­sible to achieve and foolhardy to attempt. The economics of the energy crisis shaped a climate whereby the Government, with industry encouragement and support, gave NASA the go-ahead and appropriate funding to embark upon programs that typically would have never been attempted.

ACEE was vitally important, and while many technical reports have been written about its programs, it has received little historical analysis. While the program appears as a footnote or sidelight in several important historical works, it is rarely placed at the forefront and given exclusive attention." One exception was in 1998, when Virginia P. Dawson and Mark D. Bowles’s article on the Advanced Turboprop Project in Pamela Mack’s edited collection. From Engineering Science to Big ScienceУ The collab­oration and research for that article, "Radical Innovation in a Conservative Environment,” laid the groundwork for this current monograph.

Some of the best monographs and technical reports for the Lewis ACEE projects include Roy Hager and Deborah Vrabel’s Advanced Turboprop Project and Carl C. Ciepluch’s published results of the Energy Efficient Engine project." Langley’s ACEE projects have been the subjects of Marvin B. Dow’s review of composites research. David B. Middleton’s program summary of the Energy Efficient Transport project, and Albert L. Braslow’s history of laminar flow control.[11] [12] [13] [14] Jeffrey L. Ethell’s Fuel

Economy in Aviation is an excellent technical overview of the entire ACEE program.[15] A vast number of technical reports were written dur­ing the course of these projects themselves. For example, a bibliography of the Composite Primary Aircraft Structures program alone, compiled in 1987, contains over 600 entries for technical reports just for this one ACEE program. These studies, however, focus primarily on technological evolution and achievements, and most were written while ACEE was still an active program or just shortly after its conclusion. This monograph. The "Apollo" of Aeronautics, examines the ACEE program more than 20 years after its termination and places it within a political, cultural, and economic context, which is absent from most of the previous work.

Taken together, the ACEE programs at Langley and Lewis represented an important moment in our technological history, which deserves further analysis for several reasons. First, it was tremendously successful on a number of technological levels. Many of the six ACEE projects led to significant improvements in fuel efficiency. One measure of this success is how much more fuel-efficient commercial airplanes are today, compared with the mid-1970s, when the ACEE program began. An estimate in 1999 suggested that aircraft energy efficiency improved on an average of 3 to 4 percent each year, and that the “world’s airlines now use only about half as much fuel to carry a passenger a set distance as they did in the mid – 1970s.”[16] This important statistic testifies to the improved fuel efficiency stimulated by the ACEE program. While it alone was not responsible for this achievement, it served as a key industry enabler and catalyst to incor­porate new fuel-savings technology into its operating fleets.

Second, ACEE represents an important case study in technology transfer to the civil industry. The goal of ACEE, from its inception, was for NASA to partner with industry to achieve a specific goal —a fuel – efficient aircraft to counteract the energy crisis. NASA, as an Agency, was important because it was able to assume the risk for technically radi­cal projects thought to be too difficult and costly for industry alone to sponsor. “Aeronautics” was the “first A" in NASA, and this technology transfer program to the aviation industry was a way for it to reconnect with its historical roots as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). This also offered a way for NASA to prove it still could make vital contributions to aeronautics research and. at the same time, demon­strated the successful “focused” R&D approach to maturing technology versus the attempt to advance technology with low-level “base” programs. The ACEE program also exemplified one way in which NASA turned its sights Earthward after the golden age of Moon landings and focused on energy conservation—an issue that continues to be of increasing impor­tance in the 21st century.

Third, the history of this program represents an important case study in technological creativity and risk, a theme highlighted in the Dawson and Bowles article on the Advanced Turboprop Project. Thomas Hughes, a prominent historian of technology, has argued that the research and devel­opment organizations of the 20th century, regardless of whether they are run by a Government, industry, or members of a university community, stifle technical creativity. “Organizations did not support the radical inven­tions of the detached independent inventor.” Hughes wrote, “because, like radical ideas in general, they upset the old. or introduced a new status quo.”’7 In contrast, the late 19th century for Hughes was the “golden era” of invention —a time w’hen the independent inventor flourished with­out institutional constraints. Historian David Hounshell has challenged Hughes’s contention that industrial research laboratories “exploit creative, inventive geniuses; they neither produce nor nurture them.**1* Not only can the industrial research laboratory nurture a creative individual, but col­lectively. people engaged in research and development can inspire revolu­tionary new technological opportunities.[17] [18] [19]

The ACEE program represents a case in w hich organizational capa­bilities, not individual genius alone, created an opportunity for significant innovation. The organizational structure of the ACEE program (focused R&D funding) encompassed not just the various NASA Centers but also

included a web of industrial contracts that made it far more complex than the research laboratory of a single industrial firm. Yet the bureau­cratically complex ACEE program responded to the energy crisis in an efficient way to advance some very revolutionary ideas. However, although NASA provided the environment and support for radically inno­vative technologies, in the end. the more conservative the ACEE technol­ogy, the more likely it was to become a commercial reality. The Lewis Advanced Turboprop Project and the Langley Laminar Flow Control pro­gram each represented the most significant fuel savings and were con­sidered the most revolutionary of all the technologies explored. Although both were demonstrated to be technically feasible under the ACEE pro­gram. neither achieved commercial success. They were the programs most susceptible to industry neglect when the energy crisis of the 1970s subsided and fuel prices decreased.

Fourth. ACEE represents an interesting historical moment that marked a transition point between American domination of the world’s civil avia­tion industry’ and rising challenges from foreign competitors, such as Airbus. From its inception, the aviation industry was different from the auto industry because the U. S. Government provided it with massive sup­port in the name of national defense. For example, during World War II, the Government purchased planes from private manufacturers. After the war. it committed billions to finance the development of new aeronautics technology for both military and commercial aircraft. As a result of these efforts, the United States captured 90 percent of the world market and held this commanding position through the 1970s. Boeing, as the larg­est exporter, played a significant role in the American economy. Robert Leonard. Langley’s ACEE project manager said that each jumbo jet manu­factured in the United States and sold abroad offset the importation of roughly 9.000 automobiles.[20] This trade balance was vital for the United States to maintain —but it did not.

Challengers such as Airbus waited in the wings, backed with govern­mental commitments that far exceeded American support to the industry. Founded in 1965 as a consortium of European countries, Airbus used mas­sive government subsidies and private investors to develop its first plane.

The wings were made in Britain, the cockpit in France, the tail in Spain, the fuselage in West Germany, and the edge flaps in Belgium. The engines came from America. The Airbus had important innovations: it flew on two engines with two pilots, instead of three engines and three pilots. This reduced fuel consumption and lowered per flight operating costs. In 1988, Airbus captured 23 percent of the world market, and in 1999, for the first time, it received more orders for airplanes than Boeing did.-1 The story of ACEE fits within this global context and challenge, and it demonstrates the significance of the decisions made in the development and support of the next-generation aeronautical innovations. Some have argued that the same conservatism and risk aversion that defined the American civil avia­tion industry and enabled a challenger to take over the leading position in world market share now threatens Airbus. Today. Airbus and Boeing both face new sources of competition in Japan and China.[21] [22]

Finally, ACEE is important because it took center stage in NASA’s civil aeronautical research agenda. This led some to argue that ACEE was “the most important program in aeronautical technology in NASA” in the 1970s and 1980s.[23]’ Others called it the "best program NASA has had in the last ten years from the aeronautics standpoint.”[24] Individual awards also attested to its importance. As a measure of the high regard of the aeronautical commu­nity. the Advanced Turboprop eventually earned a Collier Trophy, considered the most prestigious award for aerospace achievement in the United States. NASA’s heritage and tradition were in aeronautics, and for ACEE to be con­sidered the most important of all the programs put it into elite company.

Raymond Colladay, a former president of Lockheed Martin, Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and NASA Associate Administrator said, “By most any metric you would use. I’d have to say yes, that it was the most important.” It was important because it brought together a broad range of research and technology development programs that directly addressed a national need. According to Colladay:

“It had enough resources to make a difference, to really move things forward, whereas most of the time in the NASA aeronautics program, there isn’t enough critical mass and resolve and focus to really make sig­nificant results in a timely fashion. The ACEE program did that."2′ The accompanying list highlights NASA’s aeronautical programs as of 1983, which was the midpoint of the ACEE program and the 25th anniversary of NASA. While these 12 main aeronautics programs were important, ACEE contributed another 6 separate programs on its ow n and was generally considered the most vital for NASA in terms of technological potential and national need.) According to Joseph Chambers, it represented a per­fect mixture of “funding, world economics, and technology readiness ” in contrast to other programs, like the Supersonic Transport, that “spent much more money without significant impact on commercial aviation.”[25] [26]

A snapshot of NASA’s aeronautical programs in 1983 is as follows:

• Supersonic Cruise Aircraft Research (SCAR) developed supersonic technologies.

• for increased range, more passengers. lighter weight, and more efficient engines.

• The Terminal-Configured Vehicle (TCV) studied prob­lems such as landing aircraft in inclement weather, high – density traffic, aircraft noise, and takeoff and landing in highly populated areas.

• Lifting bodies were experimental wingless aircraft.

• Oblique wings were aircraft wings that could pivot 60 degrees to improve fuel efficiency.

• The Highly Maneuverable Aircraft Technology (HiMAT) was a joint program with the Air Force to test advanced fighter aircraft technologies.

• The forward-swept wing (FSW) was a joint program with DARPA to test an unusual configuration with the wings swept forward 30 degrees from the fuselage for greater transonic maneuverability and better low-speed performance.

• The Quiet, Clean Short Haul Experimental Engine (QCSEE) promised lower noise and reduced emissions.

• The Quiet, Clean, General Aviation Turbofan Engine (QCGAT) looked at ways to reduce noise and emission levels for business jets.

• The Quiet Short-haul Research Aircraft (QSRA) was an experimental vehicle to investigate commercial short take­off and landing to assist in reducing airport congestion.

• The Vertical/Short Take-Off and Landing research pro­gram (V/STOL) was one of NASA’s helicopter projects.

• The Rotor Systems Research Aircraft (RSRA) was another experimental helicopter that had wings.

• The Tilt Rotor Research Aircraft (TRRA) flew twice as fast as conventional helicopters and had potential military and commercial opportunities.

It became the “Apollo of Aeronautics,” which represents, on the one hand, its importance, with the comparison to the visible technologi­cal icon. On the other hand, it demonstrates the longstanding belief that NASA’s aeronautics mission had become a handmaiden to its space activi­ties, existing in Apollo’s shadow. The terminology refers to President Richard M. Nixon’s 1973 speech in which he established a “Project Independence," with a goal of attaining energy independence for the United States by 1980. Abe Silverstein. a former Lewis Director, had writ­ten a letter to NASA Administrator George Low, discussing the President’s “need for ‘Apollo’ type programs” for energy, efficiency, and conserva­tion projects.2 Silverstein had a unique connection with the name, as he was the one who suggested that NASA’s missions to the Moon be called “Apollo.”[27] [28]


The name-association between this space program and aeronautics continued with the Advanced Transport Technology program, an ACEE pre­decessor of the early 1970s, which Jeffrey Ethell called the “Apollo pro­gram of aeronautics."[29] Just like ACEE. it incorporated several advanced aeronautical concepts under one initiative.

But, if the best way to describe the Nation’s most significant aero­nautics project was through comparison to an aerospace program and the glory years of Apollo, then this cornerstone of NASA was in trouble. This was both perception and reality. Not only was ACEE threatened with can­cellation just a few years after it began, but in the early 1980s, NASA had to fight to ensure that it would be allowed to keep all of its aeronautics programs under its research umbrella. Key advisers in the new Reagan administration called for the end of aeronautics for NASA. To keep it alive. NASA had to become active advocates and sellers of its aeronautical expertise to convince the Government and the Office of Management and

Budget that it was in the best interest of the Nation to continue these activ­ities. Although a stay of execution was granted, the aeronautics advocates were not entirely successful. In 1980, NASA’s entire budget was S3.6 bil­lion, with aeronautics representing just $300 million.[30] These problems for the aeronautics program continue today.

While ACEE could be considered the Apollo of fuel-conserva­tion projects, it was also fundamentally different. Although ACEE and Apollo both responded to a national need, ACEE was unlike Apollo in that the space program had a significant development component coupled with its mission of building a spacecraft to send men to the Moon. Apollo responded to a national security and military threat. ACEE’s mission was never to build an aircraft but to establish enabling technology that airline manufacturers could commercialize at their own expense. ACEE responded to an economic threat. Apollo was a single program, funded in the billions of dollars. ACEE was a series of six programs, which combined received less than a half billion dollars of funding. Despite these differences, Apollo was the pinnacle of NASA’s aerospace program and became not only a symbol of the Agency’s ability and excellence but also of American tech­nical ingenuity and ability. Although the analogy is not exactly correct, ACEE was NASA’s most important aeronautics program, and so it became the ‘"Apollo of Aeronautics,” fighting to emerge from Apollo’s shadow.

Apollo has become the symbol of American achievement, as demon­strated through that familiar phrase that begins, “If we can put a man on the Moon ” Though it is equally impressive that humans have been Hy­

ing in the sky for just over a century, this feat no longer is as wondrous as it once was. In an era when aeronautics research is continually threatened by funding cuts and disinterest, this monograph’s intentionally ironic title serves as a reminder that aeronautics research it needs to overcome its sec­ondary status and reclaim some of its former prestige. The story told here will demonstrate the significance aeronautics has played and continues to play in the history of the United States.

Finally, this story of the ACEE program takes on special resonance when we reflect from a 21st century perspective, as hybrid technol­ogy and fuel efficiency once again become cherished commodities. In summer 2008, when gasoline prices were measured by increasing dollars, as opposed to increasing cents as in the early 1970s, the United States began awaking from the collective amnesia over fuel dependence suffered throughout the 1990s and the age of the SUV. In the absence of any cur­rent coordinated national effort uniting Government, industry, and aca­demia. the successes and lessons of the ACEE program become ever more important. This $500-million program, funded by the Government, has achieved many of its goals, making the aircraft flying today significantly more fuel efficient. But the structure of the ACEE program, coupled with the willingness of the United States Government to invest in researching risky technological ideas, is what serves as a lesson today. It also serves as a warning for the consequences of failing to utilize aggressively the most revolutionary fuel-efficient technology. Government and industry left some of the most advanced ACEE fuel conservation concepts on the design table and the test stand, never integrating them into commercial flight because of decreasing oil prices (a temporary phenomenon). Today, NASA is scrambling to resurrect some of these concepts—it is, for exam­ple, now attempting to breathe new life into the Advanced Turboprop, a program long thought dead. While ACEE can be examined as a model for how to respond to the energy crisis, which continues to threaten American prosperity, it also demonstrates the consequences of technological innova­tion left to subsequent neglect.

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