Chapter 2 - A Heritage Lost and Regained


variable density tunnel

[The variable density tunnel at Langley Field, March 15, 1929]


[9] The Wright's success over the windswept dunes of Kitty Hawk was followed by a strange hiatus. Man had successfully flown in a powered machine; but the world said in effect, " So what ? " If aircraft were merely mechanical diversions, wind tunnels were even less important.

However, events soon reversed this descent into the depths of indifference. Europe was restless and its countries quarrelsome. Military planners were plotting strategies for conflicts that seemed to draw closer every day. Then, in 1908, Wilbur Wright startled the European aviation community-to say nothing of the generals. At Le Mans, France, in August 1908, he demonstrated absolute mastery of the air with precise control of his Flyer. One flight lasted 1-1 /2 hours. An occasional prestigious passenger was treated to a ride. The Wrights' barnstorming revolutionized Europe's thoughts on aviation. One Flyer passenger, Major B. F. S. Baden-Powell, president of the British Aeronautical Society, ventured " . . . that Wilbur Wright is in possession of a power which controls the fate of nations is beyond dispute."

While the United States government would not even purchase an off-the-shelf flying machine, European countries began to pour major resources into aeronautical development, including, by necessity, wind tunnels. Between 1903 and the start of World War I in 1914, the countries of Europe wrested technical leadership in aviation away from the United States. Centralized government-funded aeronautical laboratories were built in England, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia-but not in America. When the Great War began, France had 1400 military aircraft; Germany, 1000; Russia, 800; and Great Britain, 400. The U.S. flying machine inventory was 23.