Chapter 5 - The Era of High-Speed Flight


Ames 6 x 6-foot
supersonic wind tunnel

[The Ames 6 x 6-foot supersonic wind tunnel with supporting facilities]



[49] To the aeronautical pioneers of the early 1900s, a sustained speed of 100 mph would have seemed an incredible goal. Yet aircraft speed records fell with great regularity in the 1920s and 1930s. In September 1948, the F-86 jet fighter reached a speed of 670 mph. Forty years earlier only a madman would have suggested that such speeds were possible. In 1948 a new generation of "madmen" were dreaming of planes flying several times the speed of sound and of rockets leaving the Earth's atmosphere. But surely 670 mph was fast enough for anyone. Was there any real need for higher speeds?

The stark military reality of 1948 was that a single flying machine, whether manned or unmanned, whether jet or rocket driven, could carry as much destructive power as an entire fleet of World War II bombers. The atom bomb, of course, made highspeed delivery systems of crucial importance in the buildup of weapons during the Cold War. Ironically, the United States, which had developed the atomic bomb, was well behind Germany in designing advanced weapons delivery systems. The jet engine, the long-range rocket, the swept wing, and the guided missile-here was where the United States lagged and NACA wind tunnels would help the most.

By the end of the 1948-1957 decade, jets would fly at 1200 mph, the ICBM would be a reality, and the first artificial satellite would be in orbit. The wartime subsonic wind tunnels, which had been used with such effectiveness by NACA, had to be supplemented immediately by faster-than- sound facilities. Although NACA planners could not foresee the coming explosive developments in flight, NACA launched a crash program to design and build three large supersonic wind tunnels, one each at the Langley, Ames, and Lewis centers during the closing days of the war. A whole new wind tunnel technology had to be conceived, plotted out on drawing boards, and turned into practical hardware.