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NASA Facts World War II and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics

NASA Facts World War II and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics

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Published by Bob Andrepont

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Published by: Bob Andrepont on Jul 22, 2011
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Well before the United States’ formal entry intoWorld War II on Dec. 8, 1941, the political, militaryand industrial leaders of the nation started whatbecame a massive national mobilization effort. Thenation’s scientific organizations made vital contribu-tions in several fields. In the area of aeronauticalresearch, the National Advisory Committee forAeronautics made many important contributions to thedevelopment and production of military aircraft thatsaw service during the war. The story of military avia-tion and the American aircraft industry during the waris well-known. The story of research conducted by theNACA has received less attention. This fact sheethighlights some aspects of the NACA’s wartime work.
“Research Midwife”-A New Approach to Aeronautical Research
The NACA was established in 1915 “to superviseand direct the scientific study of the problems of flightwith a view to their practical solution.” During thenext 25 years, the NACA became one of the world’spremier aeronautical research organizations. Still, in1939 (the year Germany invaded Poland), there wereonly 500 employees and the organization had a modestbudget of a little more than $4 million. Like almostevery other government agency, the war transformedthe NACA. It grew from one research facility—theLangley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory inHampton, Va.—to three. The new facilities were theAmes Aeronautical Laboratory in Mountain View,Calif., and the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory inCleveland, Ohio. Employment peaked at 6,077employees in 1945 and the budget that same year wasalmost $41 million.Equally significant as the changes created by theexpansion of personnel and facilities was the change inthe NACA’s approach to research. Before the war, theNACA had conducted more basic research, mainlyaerodynamics and flight research. Despite its charter tofind “practical solutions,” the NACA had held industryat arm’s length. The urgent demands of war necessitat-ed a different relationship. A unique partnership wasformed by NACA researchers with industry designersand military planners. One journalist characterized theNACA’s role in this partnership as “the research mid-wife at the birth of ... better American planes.”What the journalist was trying to capture was theNACA’s new role in conducting applied developmentwork for industry and the military. The fundamentalresearch agenda of the 1920s and 30s proved a solidfoundation for its new wartime responsibilities. TheNACA mandate to find “practical solutions” assumedparamount importance in guiding the organization dur-ing the war. NACA engineers began using the labora-tories (especially its growing wind tunnel complex)and technical expertise to develop new testing methods
NASA
Facts
National Aeronautics andSpace Administration
Langley Research Center
Hampton, Virginia 23681-0001804 864-3293
July 1995
World War II and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics:
U.S. Aviation Research Helped Speed Victory
 
2
which resulted in improvements in aircraft speed,range and maneuverability that ultimately helped turnthe tide of the war in favor of the Allies.
NACA Research:The Force Behind Our Air Supremacy
In January 1944, a leading aviation publication,
 Aviation
, editorialized that the NACA was the “forcebehind our Air Supremacy” and that “the story of theNACA [was] the story of American aviation. Neithercould well exist without the other. If either fails, theother cannot live.” This was recognized later as exag-gerated praise. In fact, the NACA was far behindGreat Britain and Germany in recognizing the signifi-cance of jet propulsion, the single most importantdevelopment in aviation during the war period.Nonetheless, the NACA did have many importantaccomplishments during the war and its employeeswere justifiably proud of their work. Air power was acritical factor in the nation’s military success. Thosewho worked closely with the application of technologyto the development and production of aircraft had akeen appreciation for the often “invisible” contribu-tions made by the NACA. Further, the NACA organi-zation served as a model for structuring othergovernment scientific research agencies both duringand after the war.What follows is a description of a few of the majorresearch projects including drag cleanup, deicing,engine development, low-drag wing, stability and con-trol, compressibility, ditching and seaplane studies. Tolearn more about the NACA’s wartime work, see thesuggested reading list at the end of this fact sheet.
Keep it Clean
The most important work done by the NACA duringthe war was “drag cleanup.” Drag is the resistance toairflow. Every engineer or experimentalist since thebeginnings of heavier-than-air flight has struggled tominimize it. Between 1938 and 1940, researchers atLangley pioneered a method using its cavernous Full-Scale Wind Tunnel to measure drag and make recom-mendations to the manufacturer as to how best to cor-rect the problems. The military was so enthusiasticabout the results of the “drag cleanup” process—whichhelped solve technical problems and was quick andinexpensive—that it had the NACA test virtually everynew prototype.Drag cleanup work continued throughout the war atLangley as well as at the Ames laboratory whichopened a still larger full-scale tunnel of its own. Theexperimental work began by putting a full-size aircraftinto one of the full-scale wind tunnels, taking off allantennas and other items sticking out from the aircraftbody and, finally, covering the entire airplane surfacewith tape. Measurements were made of this “aerody-namically smooth” airplane. Gradually, the engineerswould remove the tape strips and determine the dragcreated by every part of the airplane. The resultingreport not only identified the problems but also maderecommendations on how to correct them. The NACAalso conducted an extensive program of flight researchto confirm its drag cleanup recommendations and fur-ther assist industry and the military in the quest formaximum performance.
This Douglas XSBD-2 model was the first aircraft to be tested in the NACA Ames 40 x 80-ft.Wind Tunnel, the largest wind tunnel in the world at the time. Drag reduction studies were performed on the airplane. AAL-5985
 
3
A good example of the impressive results producedby drag cleanup was the Bell P-39
 Airacobra
. Theaircraft originally had a top speed of 340 mph. Afterundergoing two months of drag cleanup work, theplane emerged with a new maximum speed of 392mph. Instead of an expensive and time-consumingcomplete redesign of the aircraft, the NACA’s dragcleanup research showed that minor modificationswould enable the P-39 to meet the Army’sspecifications.
Hold the Ice
Ice is the bane of every pilot. It coats wings andpropellers, reducing lift and increasing drag, oftenresulting in fatal crashes. Right from the start, theentire aviation community was unanimous in its desireto develop a system that would make flying safer. TheNACA began its studies in the late 1920s at Langley,however, work was transferred to Ames as soon as theCalifornia lab was opened. The icing project was con-sidered unique among NACA wartime efforts becauseit consisted of both research and extensive design of actual hardware used on airplanes.The NACA developed a heat deicing system whichpiped air heated by hot engine exhaust along the lead-ing edge of the wing. The Army asked the NACA toinstall a prototype of this system on two bombers, theBoeing B-17
Flying Fortress
and the ConsolidatedB-24
 Liberator 
; the Navy swiftly followed suit havingthe NACA put a prototype on the Consolidated PBY
Catalina
. Studying the results of these prototype sys-tems as well as further test results from its own Curtiss
 A Lockheed YP-38
Lightning
(the second prototype of the
Lightning
series) undergoes drag clean-up in the NACALangley 30 x 60-ft. Full-Scale Tunnel. LMAL-27008

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