Suggested Searches

6 min read

Eastman N. ‘Jake’ Jacobs

Eastman N. 'Jake' Jacobs
Eastman N. ‘Jake’ Jacobs
Credit: NASA

Eastman N. “Jake” Jacobs (1902 – 1987) was a brilliant aerodynamicist and engineer who contributed major advances in aeronautics, including the design and applications of advanced airfoils and wind tunnels, and initial studies of futuristic concepts such as jet propulsion and nuclear fusion. He joined the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1925, after earning a mechanical engineering degree at the University of California, Berkley.

Jacobs was assigned to the research group at the revolutionary Variable Density Tunnel (VDT), where the use of a pressurized test section permitted testing at conditions much more representative of flight than conventional atmospheric tunnels; and served as head of the tunnel section from 1928 to 1939. He pioneered the systematic, mathematical definition of airfoil profiles (the NACA series of airfoils); and oversaw extensive experimental studies of those airfoil shapes, providing designers with unprecedented data for their selection for new airplanes. 

When the group attempted to design airfoils for extreme values of lift for lower landing speeds, Jacobs recognized the importance of controlling the state of the boundary layer (the extremely-thin air layer next to a moving surface); but concluded that the production of extremely high lift would require unacceptably complex active boundary-layer control systems. Instead, he became interested in modifying boundary-layer flows by shaping a body to reduce drag, thereby increasing the lift-to-drag ratio of airfoils.

His interest in low-drag airfoils was tempered by the need to obtain better correlation with flight results by reducing the very high levels of turbulence encountered in the VDT. While providing solutions to the immediate problem, he pursued a dream to build a new wind tunnel designed from the outset for low levels of turbulence. He conceived and managed an emerging experimental program on low-drag laminar-flow airfoils while advocating for and designing a new low-turbulence tunnel in 1935. Initially disguised as an “Icing Tunnel” in order to obtain Congressional funding, the tunnel was quickly redirected to airfoil research as the highly successful Two-Dimensional Low-Turbulence Tunnel (operational in 1938), and was followed by his design of an even more capable Two-Dimensional Low-Turbulence Pressure Tunnel (LTPT) in 1941. In these two tunnels, Jacobs evolved one of most important breakthroughs in aeronautics — the laminar flow airfoil, which achieves low drag by maintaining laminar, rather than turbulent-flow conditions over much of the airfoil. Jacobs was the inspiration and driver behind the laminar-flow program. Combining the promise of low drag with a significant delay in the onset of compressibility effects at high speeds, the airfoils revolutionized the design of U.S. aircraft in World War II, such as the famous P-51 Mustang, the P-63 King Cobra, and several others.

In recognition of his outstanding contributions and superior research on the aerodynamics of wing sections, Jacobs was the recipient of the coveted Wright Brothers Award in 1933, and the Sylvanus Albert Reed Award in 1937. 

During his career, he developed an interest in high-speed wind tunnels and led design efforts for other famous Langley wind tunnels, including: the 11-Inch High-Speed Tunnel (1928), the 24-Inch High-Speed Tunnel (1934), and the concept for the 8-foot High-Speed Tunnel (1936). In 1935, Jacobs attended the famous Volta aeronautical congress in Italy where he made a presentation on his experiments with high-speed tunnels and his experience as the first person to observe a shock wave in tunnel testing using Schlieren photography. He then overcame a cautious NACA position on supersonic aerodynamics, leading the effort to construct the 9-Inch Supersonic Tunnel (1942), one of the first supersonic tunnels in the United States. 

While being recognized as a technical genius, Jacobs was also known to be eccentric. In 1938, he and an associate at Langley initiated the first U.S. experiment to achieve thermonuclear fusion. When NACA management learned of their work, further experiments were cancelled due to their lack of focus on aeronautics and the dangerous nature of the work.

Also in the late 1930s, Jacobs became interested in a concept for jet propulsion that had been advanced by Italian Secondo Campini. In 1939, he began an experimental investigation of a version of such an engine. The first NACA experiments, in 1940, showed difficulties in maintaining combustion in the axial-flow compressor for what is now known as a turbo-fan engine. Jacobs then advocated for a research airplane to demonstrate the concept. Unfortunately, the top-secret nature of turbojet-engine developments in Europe had been kept away from the NACA and the project was terminated, much to the dismay of Jacobs and his associates. Jacobs ultimately grew impatient with opposing views of peers and management regarding his revolutionary proposals.

In 1944, Langley dissolved his Air-Flow Research Division and he spent several months at the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory (today the NASA Glenn Research Center) in Cleveland, Ohio, as a special assistant, and continued work on jet propulsion, carried out without official sanction. He retired from the NACA in 1944 at the early age of 42, after a relatively brief 19-year career.

After leaving AERL, Jacobs and his mother moved to rural Malibu, in Ventura County, California, where they lived on a 73-acre ranch estate. While at Malibu, he served as an independent consultant for industry and the military, especially for Naval Air Station Point Mugu. Jacobs built an airplane and an airstrip at the ranch, using the capabilities for both business and pleasure. He was very active in motorcycling and hiking throughout his retirement. 

In 1956, Jacobs entered the restaurant business by opening a gas station, real-estate office, and restaurant he called “Panorama Pacific at Solimar” on his property near the Pacific Coast Highway on the Ventura-Los Angeles county line. The locals found the name too long and complicated to remember and simply called it “Jake’s Diner.” He was once robbed at gunpoint during a traumatic robbery, and later sold the restaurant. It has changed hands twice over the years, and was renamed “Neptune’s Net” in the 1970s. The eatery has changed little over the last 60 years, and operates today as a highly-popular spot, catering to surfers and motorcyclists, as well as movie stars looking for a getaway from the spotlight. Stars frequenting the restaurant have included Jonathan Winters, Steve McQueen, Drew Barrymore, Adam Sandler, Jay Leno, Tom Hanks, Michelle Pfeiffer, Keanu Reeves, Elizabeth Taylor, Pierce Brosnan, Martin Sheen, and Nicolas Cage.

Jacobs was survived by four daughters and two sons. He passed away on Father’s Day 1987 and his ashes were spread at his beloved ranch.