Speed. Love it or hate it, no one wants slow. Cars, computers, text messages, microwave, faster is always expected. But advances don’t just turn up, they require innovation, evolution, science, engineering, and most of all, hard work. It may be difficult to believe, but the US government recognized this. Well, at least as far as airplanes go.
In the dark days of WW1, science and engineering was everything. More than any previous conflict, WW1 drove advances in the machines of war, and one of those machines was the airplane. Realizing the US risked falling behind the Europeans in terms of organization, the government formed NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. It wasn’t a grand committee with only 12 unpaid members and a budget of $5000, but sometimes these are the best ones.
NACA didn’t really get going until the 1920s, when Orville Wright was appointed to the board. NACA had a interesting approach to research, often letting their engineers perform experiments as they saw fit on whatever they chose. They did have one big problem, though. Speed. NACA stubbornly stuck to the idea that aerodynamic research could be conducted with low speed (70-100mph) wind tunnels. In the 1930s, the aircraft they were supposedly trying to help design flew far faster than they could simulate in their wind tunnels. They had no way to invent the future.
General “Hap” Arnold ran straight over this stubbornness. He was a pilot, he knew the US needed faster aircraft, and he wasn’t in the habit of accepting the answer “no, ” so by 1942 NACA had a wind tunnel capable of 550mph. This must have been a serious kick in the pants for NACA, because thereafter they were on a serious speed quest.
NACA and the Army Air Force joined forces and started knocking down records at an amazing pace. In keeping with their new found vitality they had to have some cool names for their experimental aircraft, and the X-planes were born.
In 1944, they started the development of the X-1 rocket plane and three years later, against a mass of unknown unknowns they broke the speed of sound.
By 1951 they were testing ramjets.
By the mid fifties they were testing supersonic unmanned vehicles and vertical take off jets.
Then, at the end of the fifties came the X-15, capable of mach 6+ and altitudes in excess of 60 miles, this was the poster-boy of X-planes.
To put that in perspective Mach 6 is more than 4000 mph. No wonder its B-52 launch platform was named (and I kid you not here) “Balls 8.” It wasn’t named for the reason you’d think, but its probably the most appropriately named mothership ever.
Even before the X-15 flew, NACA’s days were numbered. It had been researching rockets, but in 1958 it was dissolved and its assets and employes became the founders of NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration). Speed was still important, but the organizations goals had been widened to include space.
A couple of years later they were widened even further when Kennedy made his famous man on the moon speech.
Fifteen years. Mach 0.75 to 6.75. Propellers to jets to ramjets to rockets. Has there ever been a time when speed was tackled so dramatically? The X-planes and their pilots took on those unknown unknowns and blazed a trail. The cost was dramatic, and not just money was spent. Pilots, ground crew, and engineers, much of what we take for granted came from these people’s sacrifice.
For all the glory, there were flops too, lemons that should never have flown and disasters that did. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to look at some of them, the brightest and the not quite so bright, the records and the things that just got recorded. They were amazing machines, made by amazing people, and every one of them made a contribution to where we are now … faster than we used to be.
(Images courtesy of Wikipedia)
Great article Nigel. I am looking forward to this series. “The right stuff” is one of my favorite movies. I have a relative that is a scientist at Skunk Works. He loves his job.
I want NASA to research the speed of departure. I want to get out of my car and be airborne in less time then it now takes me. I want to see younger Yeager types out there in flight test suits rushing through airports with telemetry laced luggage in tow.
Hi Holmes. Thanks for the comment. I meant to start posting on the series this week, but real life intervened. Starting Monday.
Yeah, NASA could certainly spend some of its budget on instrumented suitcases. the faster they make it to get from A to B, the longer you’ll wait at B for your luggage.