NACA - 90 years later
On March 3, NASA marked the 90th anniversary of the founding of its
predecessor organization, the National Advisory Committee for
Aeronautics, and the achievements of nearly a century of work in
NASA's keystone discipline, aeronautics. For the past 90 years, the
Agency has spearheaded advances in aeronautical technology that have
found applications in nearly all civil, commercial and military
aircraft since the NACA's founding.
Image Right: This image on the Dryden (then the NACA High-Speed Flight Research Station) ramp in June 1953 shows, clockwise from left, the Bell X-1A, D-558-1, XF-92A, X-5, D-558-2, X-4 and X-3, center.
From March 3, 1915, until its incorporation into NASA on Oct. 1,
1958, the NACA provided technical advice to the aviation industry in
the U.S. and carried out cutting-edge aeronautics research. The NACA
was created by President Woodrow Wilson in an effort to organize
American aeronautical research and "to supervise and direct the
scientific study of the problems of flight, with a view to their
practical solution." NASA has continued this tradition to the present
In the 1920s NACA engineers developed a low-drag, streamlined cowling
for aircraft engines, which all aircraft manufacturers adopted. This
innovation resulted in significant operating-cost savings and won the
1929 Collier Trophy. NACA engineers demonstrated the advantages of
mounting engines into the leading edge of a wing of multiengine
aircraft rather than suspending them below, another commercially
During the 1930s, NACA engineers developed several families of
airfoils. Many of these airfoil shapes have been successfully used
over the years as wing and tail sections for general aviation and
military aircraft, as well as propellers and helicopter rotors. The
testing data gave aircraft manufacturers a wide selection of airfoils
from which to choose. The information eventually found its way into
the designs of many U.S. aircraft, including a number of important
World War II-era aircraft.
In the 1940s, NACA researchers developed the laminar-flow airfoil,
which solved the problem of turbulence at the wing trailing edge that
had limited aircraft performance, and pioneered advances in transonic
and supersonic flight. Engineer John Stack led development of a
supersonic wind tunnel, speeding the advent of operational supersonic
aircraft. He shared the Collier Trophy in 1947 with Army Air Force
pilot Chuck Yeager and Lawrence Bell, of Bell Aircraft, for research
to determine the physical laws affecting supersonic flight.
In 1945, Robert T. Jones, a premier aeronautical engineer of the
twentieth century, formulated the swept-back wing concept to reduce
shockwave effects at critical Mach numbers. Lewis Rodert received the
Collier Trophy in 1947 from President Harry S. Truman for his
pioneering research in a thermal ice prevention system for aircraft.
Image Left: This image shows the NACA Muroc staff from October 1947 in front of the NACA XS-1. In the background is the NACA JTB-29A that carried the XS-1 under its fuselage. NASA Photo
In December 1951, Richard T. Whitcomb verified his "area rule" in the
NACA transonic wind tunnel located at the NACA's Langley Memorial
Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia. Useful in the design of
delta-wing planes flying in the transonic or supersonic range, the
rule resulted in the "Coke bottle" or "wasp waist" fuselage shape to
reduce drag in the design of new supersonic aircraft.
In 1952, H. Julian Allen conceived the "blunt body concept," which
suggested that a blunt shape would absorb only a very small fraction
of the heat generated by the reentry of a body into Earth's
atmosphere. The principle was later significant to intercontinental
ballistic missile nose cones, the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo
spacecraft and all unmanned probes entering Earth's atmosphere and
that of other planets. In the 1960s and 1970s, lifting body research
and flight tests proved the feasibility of that concept and
contributed to design of the Space Shuttle.
In 1952, NACA laboratories began studying problems likely to be
encountered in space. In May 1954, the NACA proposed to the Air Force
development of a piloted research vehicle that would study the
problems of flight in the upper atmosphere and at hypersonic speeds.
That led to development of the famed rocket-propelled X-15 research
With the NACA's transformation into the National Aeronautics and
Space Administration in 1958, research for space travel became a
high-profile endeavor. NASA and Bell Aerosystems developed a Lunar
Landing Training Vehicle flight simulator for the Apollo program that
allowed a pilot to make a vertical landing on Earth in a simulated
moon environment. Donald K. "Deke' Slayton, then NASA's astronaut
chief, said there was no other way to simulate a moon landing except
by flying the LLTV.
The Agency spearheaded develop-ment and testing of a Supercritical
Wing designed by NASA aerodynamicist Richard Whitcomb. The SCW was
designed to delay formation of and reduce the shock wave over a wing
just below and above the speed of sound (transonic region of flight).
The subsequent drag reduction resulted in increased cruising speed,
improved fuel efficiency and greater flight range than can be
attained by conventional-wing aircraft. As a result, supercritical
wings are now commonplace on virtually every modern subsonic
NASA's F-8 Digital Fly-By-Wire flight research project validated the
principal concepts of all-electric flight control systems. The F-8
DFBW system was the forerunner of current fly-by-wire systems used in
the Space Shuttles and on nearly all modern high-performance military
aircraft and in many civil transports, to make them safer, more
maneuverable and more efficient. Electronic fly-by-wire systems
replaced older hydraulic control systems, freeing designers to design
aircraft with reduced in-flight stability.
NASA engineers developed and tested small, nearly vertical "winglets"
designed by Whitcomb that are installed on an airplane's wing tips to
help reduce drag. The winglet technology was initially applied to
general aviation business jets, but has since been incorporated into
most modern commercial and military transport jets.
In 2004, four decades of supersonic-combustion ramjet (scramjet)
propulsion research culminated in two successful flights of the X-43A
hypersonic technology demonstrator, attaining speeds of Mach 6.8
(5,000 mph) and Mach 9.6 (6,800 mph), world airspeed records for an
aircraft powered by an air-breathing engine. This was the first time
a scramjet-powered aircraft had flown freely under its own power, and
proved that scramjet propulsion is a viable technology for powering
future space-access vehicles and hypersonic aircraft.
The NACA and NASA have been involved in virtually all areas of
aeronautics. Some of the Agency's other significant achievements
The Aero Centers
- The NACA proposed establishing a Bureau of Aeronautics in the
Commerce Department, granting funds to the Weather Bureau to promote
safety in aerial navigation, licensing of pilots, aircraft inspection
and expansion of airmail.
- The NACA made recommendations to President Calvin Coolidge's Morrow
Board in 1925 that led to passage of the Air Commerce Act of 1926,
the first federal legislation regulating civil aeronautics.
- Research reports distributed by the NACA (and later NASA) served as
the basis for many innovations later incorporated into American civil
and military aircraft.
- In 1928, the NACA began operating the first refrigerated wind
tunnel for research on prevention of icing of wings and propellers.
- NACA propulsion experts helped develop the field of gas turbine
engine research and, to address continuing problems of how to cool
turbine blades in the new turbojets, laid the basic foundation for
research into heat-transfer phenomena.
- In the 1990s, NASA engineers developed a computer-assisted engine
control system that enabled a pilot to land a plane safely when its
normal control surfaces are disabled. The Propulsion-Controlled
Aircraft system uses standard autopilot controls already present in
the cockpit, together with new programming in the aircraft's flight
In 1917, the NACA established the Langley Memorial Aeronautical
Laboratory in Virginia, now the NASA Langley Research Center. This
laboratory quickly became the most advanced aeronautical test and
experimentation facility in the world.
In 1939, NACA authorized establishment of an aircraft research
laboratory at Moffett Naval Air Station near San Francisco. It was
renamed Ames Aeronautical Laboratory for Joseph F. Ames, a chairman
of NACA, in 1944, and eventually became NASA Ames Research Center.
In 1940, Congress authorized construction of an aircraft engine
research laboratory in Cleveland. Dedicated in 1943, it was named the
Lewis Research Center in 1948, after George Lewis, former NACA
director of aeronautical research. Today, it is known as NASA Glenn
Research Center at Lewis Field, in honor of former astronaut and U.S.
Senator John Glenn.
A temporary Langley outpost established at Muroc Army Air Base,
Calif., in 1946 shortly became a permanent facility known as the NACA
Muroc Flight Test Unit. In 1949, it became the NACA High Speed Flight
Research Station and in 1954 became independent from Langley. In
1976, it was renamed the Dryden Flight Research Center in honor of
Dr. Hugh L. Dryden, the last director of the NACA and the first
deputy administrator of NASA.
The Next 90 Years
In the future, NASA will continue to develop and validate high-value
technologies that enable exploration and discovery while continuing
its legacy breakthrough work in aeronautics.
The agency's aeronautics research mission directorate is focused on
improved airspace management systems, technologies to improve safety
and security of commercial air travel and revolutionary vehicle
designs with significantly greater performance, lower operating costs
and lesser environmental impacts.
+ View full PDF version of the March 2005 X-Press
Compiled by Peter Merlin
Dryden History Office