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John V. Becker

John V. Becker
John V. Becker
Credit: NASA

John V. Becker (b. 1913) contributed critical concepts and leadership in high-speed aerodynamics programs for the NACA and NASA, including hypersonic efforts that resulted in the highly successful X-15 research aircraft program.

John Becker was born in Albany, New York. His first interest in aviation came at the age of six, when he observed a biplane make an emergency landing on a horse-racing track. In his teenage years, he built model airplanes and developed a particular fascination with hang gliders. He proceeded to build a glider with a 28-ft wingspan, which he successfully piloted after being towed behind his father’s automobile. He attended New York University (NYU), where he joined a gliding club, and was made the first pilot of a new glider procured by the club. His flights were very successful, and he subsequently taught all of the club’s members how to fly.

In 1935, he graduated from NYU with a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering, and earned a master of science degree in 1936. Entering the job market near the end of the Great Depression, he was the only member of his class with any aeronautical job possibilities. He received two job offers—one from Grumman as a riveter, and the other from the Naval Aircraft Factory as a designer. He accepted the offer from the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia; but stayed only about a month, as he subsequently received an offer from the NACA for a position at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.

In college, Becker had developed an interest in flying boats and their aerodynamic and hydrodynamic characteristics. His thesis was related to a study in the towing basin at NYU; and he was particularly interested in the world-class Langley Towing Basin. He joined Langley in August 1936 with the hope of being assigned to the towing basin; but was instead assigned to the 8-Foot High-Speed Tunnel, working for the first head of the facility, Russell Robinson, who was replaced by John Stack in 1939. Becker would later replace Stack as head of the tunnel section.

In 1943, he was appointed Head of the 16-Foot High-Speed Tunnel; and as his career progressed, he became Chief of the Compressibility Research Division in 1947, and Chief of the Aero-Physics Division in 1958.

Becker’s research contributions during his early career included studies of World War II aircraft configurations such as the B-29 bomber, high-speed propeller and engine cowling concepts, and high-speed airfoils. He developed test techniques and wind-tunnel hardware, such as support stings, to acquire valid data in the wind tunnel up to a Mach number of about 0.96. As Head of the 16-Foot High-Speed Tunnel, he participated in the development of the famous Langley slotted-wall concept, first with a small pilot tunnel in the Langley 16-Foot Tunnel, followed by full-scale application to the 8-Foot High-Speed Tunnel and the 16-Foot Tunnel. Becker also participated in development of the historic X-1 rocket-powered research aircraft, and other research aircraft of that era.

Becker’s most important contribution to aeronautics was the first U.S. development and application of hypersonic technology. When the Allies captured the German V-2 rocket-test facilities at Peenemunde at the end of World War II, they discovered, to their surprise, a wind tunnel that could attain Mach 5 on an intermittent basis. In addition, a continuous-flow tunnel capable of Mach 10 was under construction, for the purpose of testing German intercontinental ballistic missiles destined for bombardment of the United States. At the time, Becker was an Assistant Chief of the Compressibility Research Division. Spurred on by this startling news, Becker conceived the design and provided technical supervision for the Langley 11-Inch Hypersonic Tunnel, which became the workhorse for U.S. hypersonic studies. Proposed as a pilot facility for hypersonic testing, the tunnel was first operational in 1947, in the building previously occupied by the Langley Propeller Research Tunnel. Becker managed the research activities in the tunnel that provided initial understanding of hypersonic-flow phenomena and the requirements imposed by aerodynamic heating. This pioneering facility operated for 25 years, until 1973 when it was dismantled and donated to Virginia Tech. Over 230 publications were produced by NACA and NASA researchers using the tunnel.

In advancing the state-of-the-art of hypersonic technology, he stimulated and led support for flight tests of a hypersonic research vehicle. He served as the leader of a study group that, in 1954, established the technical justification for such a vehicle, and proposed an effort that led to the X-15 research airplane project. In the X-15 activity, Becker supplied the preliminary performance specifications used in requesting industry proposals, and was chairman of the committee that evaluated the responses submitted by industry. During the design of the X-15, he provided general supervision of aerodynamic and structural studies, and initiated research that led to improvements in stability and control.

His organization later conducted extensive research on reentry configurations, some of which had wings and resembled the later NASA Space Shuttle. He also participated in efforts to support the Air Force’s X-20 Dyna-Soar program, and development of the lifting bodies. Under Becker’s leadership, the Aero-Physics Division led the development of additional, advanced high-speed facilities, including hypersonic wind tunnels, arc-jets, and shock tubes covering the speed range from Mach 1.5 to Mach 20.

During the early 1960s, Becker was a key participant, often the chair, of critical committees and steering groups during the planning of NASA’s lunar mission.

Over the course of his NASA career, Becker authored over 30 research reports. His book, The High-Speed Frontier: Case Histories of Four NACA Programs, 1920-1950 (NASA SP-445), is a classic summary of NACA’s high-speed research. He once stated that his advice to researchers seeking breakthrough technologies was to avoid incremental projects and “Work out on the lunatic fringe!”

In 1961, Becker was awarded the Sylvanus A. Reed Award of the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences, for “contributions to the advancement of aeronautical science at hypersonic speeds and for leadership in translating these advances into the design of manned, winged, hypersonic vehicles.” In 1955, he was cited by NYU as one of 100 outstanding graduates of its College of Engineering.

John Becker retired in 1974, but he retained an interest in doing consulting work. He worked for the General Applied Sciences Lab (GASL), and inspired that organization to consider flight testing of an air-breathing scramjet. His advocacy later led to a joint NASA-Industry project for development and flight testing of the X-43 Hyper-X scramjet vehicle, which was launched from a B-52 and reached a speed of Mach 9.6 in flight, setting a world speed record for an air-breathing vehicle.

In the 1970s, he returned to his old interest and took up hang gliding — almost 50 years after his first glider flights. Together with his friend Francis Rogallo of Langley, he made many trips to Nags Head, North Carolina, for enjoyable flights.

In 1946, John Becker married the former Rowena Daniel, who worked as a female computer and engineering aide for the NACA at the 8-Foot High-Speed Tunnel. Rowena passed away in 1995. At the age of 101, Becker now resides in retirement in Lynchburg, Virginia. He has two daughters, Mary and Nancy, and a son, John D. Becker.