NACA-Langley and John Becker

John Becker’s 11-inch hypersonic wind tunnel. (NASA)

During the war the Germans failed to match the Allies in production of airplanes, but they were well ahead in technical design. This was particularly true in the important area of jet propulsion. They fielded an operational jet fighter, the Me-262, and while the Yankees were well along in developing the Lockheed P-80 as a riposte, the war ended before any of those jets could see combat. Nor was the Me-262 a last-minute work of desperation. It was a true air weapon that showed better speed and acceleration than the improved P-80A in flight test, while demonstrating an equal rate of climb. Albert Speer, Hitler’s minister of armaments, asserted in his autobiographical Inside the Third Reich (1970) that by emphasizing production of such fighters and by deploying the Wasserfall antiaircraft missile that was in development, the Nazis “would have beaten back the Western Allies’ air offensive against our industry from the spring of 1944 on.” The Germans thus might have prolonged the war until the advent of nuclear weapons.

Wartime America never built anything resembling the big Mach 4.4 wind tunnels at Peenemunde, but its researchers at least constructed facilities that could compare with the one at Aachen. The American installations did not achieve speeds to match Aachen’s Mach 3.3, but they had larger test sections. Arthur Kantrowitz, a young physicist from Columbia University who was working at Langley, built a nine-inch tunnel that reached Mach 2.5 when it entered operation in 1942. (Aachen’s had been four inches.) Across the country, at NACA’s Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, two other wind tunnels entered service during 1945. Their test sections measured one by three feet, and their flow speeds reached Mach 2.2.

The Navy also was active. It provided $4.5 million for the nation’s first really large supersonic tunnel, with a test section six feet square. Built at NACA-Ames, operating at Mach 1.3 to 1.8, this installation used 60,000 horsepower and entered service soon after the war. The Navy also set up its Ordnance Aerophysics Laboratory in Daingerfield, Texas, adjacent to the Lone Star Steel Company, which had air compressors that this firm made available. The supersonic tunnel that resulted covered a range of Mach 1.25 to 2.75, with a test section of 19 by 27.5 inches. It became operational in June 1946, alongside a similar installation that served for high-speed engine tests.

Theorists complemented the wind-tunnel builders. In April 1947 Theodore von Karman, a professor at Caltech who was widely viewed as the dean of American aerodynamicists, gave a review and survey of supersonic flow theory in an address to the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences. His lecture, published three months later in the Journal of the Aeronautical Sciences, emphasized that supersonic flow theory now was mature and ready for general use. Von Karman pointed to a plethora of available methods and solutions that not only gave means to attack a number of important design problems but also gave independent approaches that could permit cross-checks on proposed solutions.

John Stack, a leading Langley aerodynamicist, noted that Prandtl had given a similarly broad overview of subsonic aerodynamics a quarter-century earlier. Stack declared, “Just as Prandtl’s famous paper outlined the direction for the engineer in the development of subsonic aircraft, Dr. von Karman’s lecture outlines the direction for the engineer in the development of supersonic aircraft.”

Yet the United States had no facility, and certainly no large one, that could reach Mach 4.4. As a stopgap, the nation got what it wanted by seizing German wind tunnels. A Mach 4.4 tunnel was shipped to the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in White Oak, Maryland. Its investigators had fabricated a Mach 5.18 nozzle and had conducted initial tests in January 1945. In 1948, in Maryland, this capability became routine. Still, if the U.S. was to advance beyond the Germans and develop the true hypersonic capability that Germany had failed to achieve, the nation would have to rely on independent research.

The man who pursued this research, and who built America’s first hypersonic tunnel, was Langley’s John Becker. He had been at that center since 1936; during the latter part of the war he was assistant chief of Stack’s Compressibility Research Division. He specifically was in charge of Langley’s 16-Foot High-Speed Tunnel, which had fought its war by investigating cooling problems in aircraft motors as well as the design of propellers. This facility contributed particularly to tests of the B-50 bomber and to the aerodynamic shapes of the first atomic bombs. It also assisted development of the Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp, a widely used piston engine that powered several important wartime fighter planes, along with the DC-6 airliner and the C-69 transport, the military version of Lockheed’s Constellation.

It was quite a jump from piston-powered warbirds to hypersonics, but Becker willingly made the leap. The V-2, flying at Mach 5, gave him his justification. In a memo to Langley’s chief of research, dated 3 August 1945, Becker noted that planned facilities were to reach no higher than Mach 3. He declared that this was inadequate: “When it is considered that all of these tunnels will be used, to a large extent, to develop supersonic missiles and projectiles of types which have already been operated at Mach numbers as high as 5.0, it appears that there is a definite need for equipment capable of higher test Mach numbers.”

Within this memo, he outlined a design concept for “a supersonic tunnel having a test section four-foot square and a maximum test Mach number of 7.0.” It was to achieve continuous flow, being operated by a commercially-available compressor of 2,400 horsepower. To start the flow, the facility was to hold air within a tank that was compressed to seven atmospheres. This air was to pass through the wind tunnel before exhausting into a vacuum tank. With pressure upstream pushing the flow and with the evacuated tank pulling it, airspeeds within the test section would be high indeed. Once the flow was started, the compressor would maintain it.

A preliminary estimate indicated that this facility would cost $350,000. This was no mean sum, and Becker’s memo proposed to lay groundwork by first building a model of the big tunnel, with a test section only one foot square. He recommended that this subscale facility should “be constructed and tested before proceeding with a four-foot-square tunnel.” He gave an itemized cost estimate that came to $39,550, including $10,000 for installation and $6,000 for contingency.

Becker’s memo ended in formal fashion: “Approval is requested to proceed with the design and construction of a model supersonic tunnel having a one-foot-square test section at Mach number 7.0. If successful, this model tunnel would not only provide data for the design of economical high Mach number supersonic wind tunnels, but would itself be a very useful research tool.”

On 6 August, three days after Becker wrote this memo, the potential usefulness of this tool increased enormously. On that day, an atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima. With this, it now took only modest imagination to envision nuclear-tipped V-2s as weapons of the future. The standard V-2 had carried only a one-ton conventional warhead and lacked both range and accuracy. It nevertheless had been technically impressive, particularly since there was no way to shoot it down. But an advanced version with an atomic warhead would be far more formidable.

John Stack strongly supported Becker’s proposal, which soon reached the desk of George Lewis, NACA’s Director of Aeronautical Research. Lewis worked at NACA’s Washington Headquarters but made frequent visits to Langley. Stack discussed the proposal with Lewis in the course of such a visit, and Lewis said, “Let’s do it.”

Just then, though, there was little money for new projects. NACA faced a postwar budget cut, which took its total appropriation from $40.9 million in FY 1945 to $24 million in FY 1946. Lewis therefore said to Stack, “John, you know I’m a sucker for a new idea, but don’t call it a wind tunnel because I’ll be in trouble with having to raise money in a formal way. That will necessitate Congressional review and approval. Call it a research project.” Lewis designated it as Project 506 and obtained approval from NACA’s Washington office on 18 December.

A month later, in January 1946, Becker raised new issues in a memo to Stack. He was quite concerned that the high Mach would lead to so low a temperature that air in the flow would liquefy. To prevent this, he called for heating the air, declaring that “a temperature of 600ºF in the pressure tank is essential.” He expected to achieve this by using “a small electrical heater.”

The pressure in that tank was to be considerably higher than in his plans of August. The tank would hold a pressure of 100 atmospheres. Instead of merely starting the flow, with a powered compressor sustaining in continuous operation, this pressure tank now was to hold enough air for operating times of 40 seconds. This would resolve uncertainties in the technical requirements for continuous operation. Continuous flows were still on the agenda but not for the immediate future. Instead, this wind tunnel was to operate as a blowdown facility.

Here, in outline, was a description of the installation as finally built. Its test section was 11 inches square. Its pressure tank held 50 atmospheres. It never received a compressor system for continuous flow, operating throughout its life entirely as a blowdown wind tunnel. But by heating its air, it indeed operated routinely at speeds close to Mach 7.

Taking the name of 11-Inch Hypersonic Tunnel, it operated successfully for the first time on 26 November 1947. It did not heat its compressed air directly within the pressure tank, relying instead on an electric resistance heater as a separate component. This heater raised the air to temperatures as high as 900ºF, eliminating air liquefaction in the test section with enough margin for Mach 8. Specialized experiments showed clearly that condensation took place when the initial temperature was not high enough to prevent it. Small particles promoted condensation by serving as nuclei for the formation of droplets. Becker suggested that such particles could have formed through the freezing of CO2, which is naturally present in air. Subsequent research confirmed this conjecture.

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