The Flying Field—Langley Research Center

In his autobiographical novel, Look Homeward, Angel. Thomas Wolfe described summer 1918, when, as a young man, he went looking for work in 1 lampton, VA. There. at a place called the “Flying Field.” he observed gangs of workers engaged in “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.”1′

The Flying Field—Langley Research Center

Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in the 1920s. One enduring feature was the mud around the administration building. (NASA Langley Research Center (NASA LaRC].)

Wolfe’s evocative prose spoke of the human muscle required to con­struct a facility devoted to escaping the bounds of Earth. What these men achieved was the construction of the only American civilian aviation labo­ratory until 1941. The laboratory became the first Center of the newly cre­ated National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).

The “Flying Field” was named for aviation pioneer Samuel P. Langley, a Harvard University professor of astronomy and Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

In the 1890s, he became obsessed with flying aircraft, but his unusual “aerodrome” experiments resulted in spectacular crashes, and the press began referring to his machines as “Langley’s folly.”4

He died in 1906. having never flown, but his namesake laboratory would become one of the leading centers of aeronautical research in the world. The NACA charter of 1915 defined a very specific mission: to “super­vise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight with a view to their practical solution.” This practical emphasis meant that Langley’s [96]

The Flying Field—Langley Research Center

Samuel Pierpont Langley < 1834-1906) and Charles M. Manley, left, chief mechanic and pilot onboard the houseboat that served to launch Langley ‘s aerodrome aircraft over the Potomac River in 1903. (NASA Langley Research Center [NASA LaRC|.)

The Flying Field—Langley Research Center

The Langley aerodrome (December 8.1903). After this photo was taken, the project ended in failure when it fell into the Potomac River. (NASA Langley Research Center |NASA LaRQ.)

engineers would treat aeronautical problems not from a theoretical distance, but through the reality of actual aircraft in flight. More than any other American institution, it was responsible for the research necessary to solve the problems of flight and develop the airplane into both a commer­cial product and a centerpiece of the Nation’s defense.[97] [98] Commissioned in 1920, its early years were filled with both promise and hardship. Langley’s three original buildings included a wind tunnel, an engine-dynamometer laboratory, and a research laboratory that became what some described as an “aeronautical mecca” in the United States."

The earliest aeronautical work at Langley included the construction and use of experimental wind tunnels, the first in 1920, to test new aircraft designs. Because the wooden biplanes of the 1920s were so frail, engineers

The Flying Field—Langley Research Center

Langley Laboratory’s first wind tunnel, a replica of a 10-year-old British design, became operational in June 1920. (NASA Headquarters —Greatest Images of NASA |NASA HQ GRIN).)

had a tremendous opportunity to improve aerodynamic efficiency through their research. They first began asking questions about how the shape of wings would decrease drag, how to design propellers, when to best use flaps, and how to predict control forces on various aircraft components.

Langley’s engineers developed the world’s first full-scale research tun­nel for propellers in 1926, and its work in drag reduction and retractable landing gear were among some of its first major technical breakthroughs. The engineers also developed the “NACA cowling.” which covered the engine, significantly reduced drag, and improved engine cooling. While all these advances required fundamental research, the ultimate goal was the practical application.

Practical achievements continued for the next several decades. In the 1930s, Langley’s laboratory tests contributed to the development of advanced aircraft such as the Douglas DC-3 and the Boeing B-17. During World War II, Langley’s engineers worked to improve the performance capabilities of military aircraft. In 1944, the NACA was in the process of testing 78 different types of aircraft, and a vast majority of these tests were done at Langley. But by this time, Langley was no longer the NACA’s only Center. The NACA established Ames Research Center in California to complement Langley in 1940. One year later, the NACA opened Lewis Research Center in Cleveland. OH. to focus on engine propulsion. After the war. Langley’s engineers explored the unknown areas of supersonic flight with jet aircraft (the ’“X” series of experimental aircraft) as well as vertical take-off and landing helicopters. But times were changing. Langley was no longer the sole NACA Center, and the American aeronautical landscape was a much different place.

After World War 1, the NACA had a clear-cut vision: improve American aeronautics. After World War II, it struggled to find its way. During the war, jet propulsion emerged, and many hoped that the NACA and Langley would take the lead in probing the frontiers of this new revo­lution in flight. But the NACA now had competition. The U. S. Air Force had grow n to become a branch of the military, with equal status to the Army, Navy, and Marines, and it began conducting its own aeronauti­cal research and development. At the same time, aircraft-manufacturing became the largest industry in the United States. Not only was it also capable of its own research, but it depleted some of the NACA’s talent pool by luring the best young aeronautical engineers with far better paying positions than the NACA could afford. This powder and research potential gave industry a much stronger voice in dictating the direction and pace of research. The NACA needed to stake out its own sphere of influence in the postwar world, but its aging engineers were increasingly responding to the demands of the United States aircraft industry.[99] [100]

The NACA needed revitalization, but this was not to be. Alex Roland described the 1950s as a time when the NACA seemed to be “waiting for the match.” Other historians, including Virginia Dawson and James Hansen, have demonstrated that the NACA was still making contributions in the 1950s, among them axial compressors and supersonics, but in many respects, as Dawson suggested,“The difference was that the air force was nowr calling the shots.”1-‘ Hansen also described the 1950s as an important time of transition in aeronautics. I le wrote, “As the golden age of atmospheric flight reached full maturity in the 1950s — with only a few major things (like super­sonic transport) left undone —many [engineers] . . . moved successfully from their mature aeronautical specialties into the new ones of spaceflight and reentry.”[101] [102]

As Roland characterized it. in 1957 Sputnik “provided the spark that set it off and… soon the old agency was consumed in flames.”1′

Although NASA, with an emphasis on space, replaced the NACA in 1958, aeronautics remained an important component of the new Agency, and aviation research continued at Langley.[103] But aviation was no longer an “infant technology.” The NACA had achieved much, and the military and industry were also engaging in their own research and building their own test facilities. So aeronautics in the newly formed NASA often took a back seat to the more visible successes of the Apollo program. It main­tained some of its greatest practical aviation importance and vitality, how­ever, through service to the aircraft industry, which still needed the support that only Government could provide in leading-edge technology. This was best exemplified by the ACEE project, and Langley took a leading role.

By the 1970s, the aircraft industry in the United States was extremely important to the economic health of the Nation, and it made up a signifi­cant percentage of its positive balance of trade, second only to agriculture. International sales of American-manufactured aircraft from 1970 to 1975 totaled $21 billion. Robert Leonard. Langley’s ACEE Project Manager, said that the export of a single jumbo jet equaled the importation of 9.000 automobiles.[104] [105] However, this dominance was not assured. In 1978. Ralph Muraca, Langley’s Deputy ACEE Project Manager, said there was a “real threat” to United States’ dominance after other nations began develop­ing new, efficient planes. Muraca concluded, “Clearly the importance of capture of most of this large market segment by our industry cannot be underestimated.”"1 Just because the United States held onto this mar­ket in the mid-1970s did not mean its dominance would last. This was especially true if it failed to develop fuel-efficient aircraft. As the price of jet fuel increased, fuel-efficient aircraft became move coveted throughout the world. Craig Covault, from Aviation Week <£ Space Technology, sim­ply referred to this as ‘“the challenge."

One key challenger was Airbus. Airbus began in the mid-1960s as a consortium of European aviation firms, and its mission was to compete directly with the American-dominated industry. In 1967, the first A300 appeared —a 320-seat, twin-engine airliner. In the late 1970s, Langley managers used a picture of a new French Airbus draped in Eastern Air Lines colors to illustrate the European threat. Donald Hearth, the Langley Director, said that because of this competition, his Center would begin restricting the flow of research results derived from the ACEE program to Europe. He said. “It is going to present an awkward situation and a change in the way we operate, and I’m not quite sure what it all means yet."[106] One thing wfas certain —ACEE was the most vital aeronautics program in the United States. Not only did it shoulder the burden and expectation of free­ing the airline industry from the effects of the energy crisis, but the ACEE programs became the chief strategic hope to ensure American-made dom­inance of next-generation aircraft in the world’s skies. The importance of ACEE, Leonard said, “cannot be overstated."[107] One of the more vital ACEE initiatives was research focusing on the materials used in the manu­facture of airplanes, which probed the potential not for stronger or less expensive materials, but lighter ones.