The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) came into being, much like its successor organization, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), in response to the success of others. Even though the Wright brothers had been the first to make a powered airplane flight in 1903, by the beginning of World War I in 1914, the United States lagged behind Europe in airplane technology. In order to catch up, Congress founded NACA on 3 March 1915, as an independent government agency reporting directly to the President. Its enacting legislation was attached as a rider to the Naval Appropriation Bill for that year. Unlike NASA, NACA began almost without anyone noticing. It started simply, with a chairman, Brigadier General George Scriven, chief of the Armyâs Signal Corps, a main committee of 12 members representing the government, military, and industry, an executive committee with 7 members, chosen from the main committee, and one employee, John F. Victory. Committee members were not paid and served only in an advisory capacity, meeting a few times a year to direct the aim of the new organization. Initially, the task of the committee was to coordinate efforts already underway across the nation. However, its mission and workforce soon grew to cover a greater role in aeronautics research in the U.S.
While not originally intended to administer its own laboratories, NACAâs expanding role led to the creation of its first research and testing facility in 1920, the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory. NACAâs personnel expanded as well. The new laboratory employed a staff of 11 technicians and 4 professionals and, by 1925, the staff had grown to over 100 employees. NACAâs main committee added the positions of executive officer, held by George Lewis, in 1919, and secretary, in 1921, held by John F. Victory.
During the late 1910s and the 1920s, NACA conducted many types of flight tests, involving both models and full-scale aircraft. Many of the test flights took place in a series of wind tunnels NACA developed. Advances, such as the NACA cowling, for which NACA won the Collier Trophy in 1929, and streamlining studies to improve the aerodynamics of aircraft resulted in greatly increased aircraft speed and range. Throughout the next three decades, NACA continued to expand its influence in the field of aviation by recruiting top notch engineers and scientists to work in ever larger and more advanced technological facilities.
NACA began to hit its stride in the 1930s and 1940s, when the threat and reality of a new world war forced rapid development and testing of new aircraft and the addition of two new laboratories, the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory in 1940 and the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory, or ãthe Cleveland laboratory,ä in 1941. (This laboratory was later renamed the Lewis Research Center.) During this period, using wind tunnel testing, NACA developed airfoil shapes for wings and propellers, which simplified aircraft design. The shapes eventually found their way into the designs of many U.S. aircraft of the time, including a number of important World War II-era aircraft, such as the P-51 Mustang.
After World War II, NACA began to work on the goal of supersonic flight. To further this goal, an adjunct facility to Langley, NACA Muroc Unit, was established in California at the Air Forceâs Muroc Field (later renamed Edwards Air Force Base). NACA worked closely with the U.S. Air Force and Bell Aircraft to design the first supersonic aircraft. This collaboration marked a significant departure for NACA. It had never before dealt with the initial design and construction of a research plane. This change in policy was a successful one. NACA made a number of contributions to the design, including a changed tail.
The first supersonic flight took place in 1947 in an experimental airplane, the X-1, piloted by Captain Charles ãChuckä Yeager and monitored by NACA personnel. This supersonic flight paved the way for further research into supersonic aircraft, leading to the development of swept wings as well as a new shape for aircraft.
In 1951, Richard Whitcomb, a NACA engineer, invented the concept of the area rule, which required trimming or indenting the midsection of an airplaneâs fuselage in the area where the wing joined it. The resulting ãCoke bottleä look decreased drag and made it easier for a plane to go supersonic. The appearance of most modern combat aircraft, especially fighters, is a result of this breakthrough.
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