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Home > Early Days of Rockets and Aeronautics > Notes on the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics

Notes on the National
Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA)

It was the lack of a government laboratory devoted to the science of flight that prompted the creation of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA. It was founded in 1915, just before the United States' entry into the War, to bring competence to the backwardness of American aviation.

For 43 years the NACA excelled in carrying out its chartered mandate ". . . to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight, with a view of their practical solution."

The Committee first surveyed the current stage of development of aircraft and the research needs of aeronautics, then set about building the scientific staff and unique research facilities required.

In June 1920, the first laboratory, the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, was dedicated; aerodynamics became the major research effort and wind-tunnels the chief tool. Within ten years the results were impressive and recognition worldwide.

The up-to-date wind tunnels were hailed as far seeing; the NACA cowling (1928) for air-cooled radial engines, a streamlined shape that increased aircraft speed, led to the low-wing multi-engine air transports and bombers of the 1930s; systematic studies of aerodynamic drag reduction improved design practices, including the advantages of retractable landing wheels over fixed, exposed landing gear.

A second research center, the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, was constructed near San Francisco in 1939 with a wind tunnel that dwarfed its predecessor at Langley. A third facility, which was later named the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory was built in Cleveland in 1940 to perform basic research, develop and test aircraft engines, and study fuels. Research on the jet engine began there in 1943.

The second World War focused aeronautical research on combat aircraft and NACA work on aerodynamics and structural research resulted in extremely effective fighter planes. Postwar research at higher speeds led to high-altitude drop-test models to gather flight data; then, to using rockets to launch models to transonic (speeds from just below to just above the speed of sound) and supersonic speeds. Langley acquired a surplus naval station on Wallops Island, Virginia, and called it the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division. Next, a High-Speed Flight Research Station was established at Muroc (later Edwards), California, for a series of special research aircraft.

By the end of World War II, NACA's research had led to rocket propulsion and air and space flight had met. The X-series of rocket research aircraft began in 1944. The X-1 was built specifically to investigate the transonic region and to break the sound barrier.

On October 14. 1947, Air Force Capt. Charles E. Yeager piloted the X-1 through the speed of sound for the first time. Beginning with the X-1's historic flight, the Research Airplane Program successfully provided a series of flight vehicles that explored areas of performance and effects of designs in the transonic and supersonic regions for more than 20 years.

At Langley a transonic wind tunnel was created in 1950, a tool that researcher Richard T. Whitcomb used in discovering the "area rule" (the cross-section areas of an aircraft should not alter too rapidly from the front to back of a plane). A genuine breakthrough in airplane design, its immediate application allowed military aircraft to break the sound barrier in level flight.

Most famous of the X research planes was the X-15. An idea in 1952, it achieved its designed altitude and speed objectives in 1968, thus spanning the transition from aeronautical research to the new Space Age.

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