NACA research and development produced the NACA duct, a type of air intake used in modern automotive applications, the NACA cowling and several series of NACA airfoils which are still used in aircraft manufacturing.
NACA began as an emergency measure during World War I to promote industry/academic/government coordination on war-related projects. It was modeled on similar national agencies found in Europe. Such agencies were the French “L’Etablissement Central de l’Aérostation Militaire” in Meudon (now Office National d’Etudes et de Recherches Aerospatiales), the German “Aerodynamical Laboratory of the University of Göttingen” and the Russian “Aerodynamic Institute of Koutchino”. However, the most influential agency upon which the NACA was based was the British “Advisory Committee for Aeronautics”.
In December 1912, President William Howard Taft had appointed a National Aerodynamical Laboratory Commission chaired by Robert S. Woodward, president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Legislation was introduced in both houses of Congress early in January 1913 to approve the commission, but when it came to a vote, the legislation was defeated.
Charles D. Walcott – secretary of the Smithsonian Institution from 1907 to 1927 – took up the effort, and in January 1915, Senator Benjamin R. Tillman, and House Representative Ernest W. Roberts, introduced identical resolutions recommending the creation of an advisory committee as outlined by Walcott. The purpose of the committee was “to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight with a view to their practical solution, and to determine the problems which should be experimentally attacked and to discuss their solution and their application to practical questions.” Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote that he “heartily the principle” on which the legislation was based. Walcott then suggested the tactic of adding the resolution to the Naval Appropriations Bill.
According to one source, “The enabling legislation for the NACA slipped through almost unnoticed as a rider attached to the Naval Appropriation Bill, on 3 March 1915.” The committee of 12 people, all unpaid, were allocated a budget of $5,000 per year.
President Woodrow Wilson signed it into law the same day, thus formally creating the Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, as it was called in the legislation, on the last day of the 63rd Congress.
The act of Congress creating NACA, approved March 3, 1915, reads, “…It shall be the duty of the advisory committee for aeronautics to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight with a view to their practical solution.
On January 29, 1920, President Wilson appointed pioneering flier and aviation engineer Orville Wright to NACA’s board. By the early 1920s, it had adopted a new and more ambitious mission: to promote military and civilian aviation through applied research that looked beyond current needs. NACA researchers pursued this mission through the agency’s impressive collection of in-house wind tunnels, engine test stands, and flight test facilities. Commercial and military clients were also permitted to use NACA facilities on a contract basis.
In 1922, NACA had 100 employees. By 1938, it had 426. In addition to formal assignments, staff were encouraged to pursue unauthorized “bootleg” research, provided that it was not too exotic. The result was a long string of fundamental breakthroughs, including “NACA engine cowl” (1930s), the “NACA airfoil” series (1940s), and the “area rule” for supersonic aircraft (1950s). On the other hand, NACA’s 1941 refusal to increase airspeed in their wind tunnels set Lockheed back a year in their quest to solve the problem of compressibility in the P-38. The
full-size 30-by-60-foot (9.1 × 18 m) Langley wind tunnel operated at no more than 100 miles per hour (160 km/h) and the recent 7-by-10-foot (2.1 × 3.0 m) tunnels at Moffett could only reach 250 mph (400 km/h). These were speeds Lockheed engineers considered useless for their purposes. Gen. ‘Hap’ Arnold took up the matter and overruled NACA objections to higher air speeds. NACA built a handful of new high-speed wind tunnels, and Mach 0.75 (570 mph, 920 km/h) was reached at Moffett’s 16-foot (4.9 m) wind tunnel late in 1942.
NACA claims credit for having the first aircraft to break the sound barrier (although the aircraft, the Bell X-1, was controlled by the Air Force and flew with an Air Force pilot when it broke the sound barrier).
They also claim credit for the first aircraft (X-15) that eventually flew to the “edge of space”. NACA airfoils are still used on modern aircraft, up to the state of the art F-22 Raptor jet fighter.
On September 30, 1946, five NACA engineers, headed by Walter C. Williams, arrived at Muroc Army Airfield (now Edwards AFB) from Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, VA, to prepare for X-1 supersonic research flights in joint NACA-Army Air Forces program.
In 1951, Richard Whitcomb determined the transonic area rule that explained the physical rationale for transonic flow over an aircraft. This concept is now used in designing all transonic and supersonic aircraft.