We Live in Heaven

Being born at the right time for aviation history.

Weick W-1A Airplane
Fred Weick built his Weick W-1A using the fruits of NACA research, and it became the ERCO Ercoupe.Jace Rivers

Congress created the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1915 “to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight with a view to their practical solution.” What would eventually become the world’s largest and most productive aeronautical-research establishment began as a committee of 12 unpaid men with a budget of $5,000 per annum.

The acronym “N.A.C.A.” was originally pronounced as single letters and preceded by “the,” but over time the periods and article fell away. At least in its adjectival form, the name has come to be pronounced “nacka,” as in nacka cowl, nacka scoop and nacka technical report. The name of the N.A.S.A., its successor, proved similarly deciduous.

I have on my shelves a couple of large, heavy books—of the sort that is especially suitable for flattening crumpled things—that I take down and dip into from time to time when I want to revisit the golden age of subsonic aeronautical research. Somewhat pretentiously entitled The Wind and Beyond, they are the first salvos of what I gather is intended to eventually become a six-volume history of aeronautical technology told mostly in the form of NACA letters, memorandums and minutes of meetings.

This stuff would probably strike most readers as being of above-average tediousness, much as the excited gossip of fan magazines about TV personalities I have never heard of strikes me. But the two kinds of literature have one property in common: Their interest arises, at least in large part, not so much from what is being said as from the characters involved. When the participants in a conversation about landing gear are Jack Northrop, Gerald Vultee and Donald Douglas, I want to listen.

One of the illuminating aspects of these readings is what they reveal about things that we take for granted today but were unknown or misunderstood then. Just as it is refreshing, from time to time, to imaginatively transport oneself back to when people exchanged handwritten communications and moved about on foot or horseback, it is stimulating to imagine the impact of the DC-3 upon a world in which Fokker and Ford Trimotors were the best that airlines were able to offer.

Volume 2 of The Wind and Beyond begins with a narrative of the genesis of the DC-3. That airplane, grandmotherly today, was as daring a damsel in 1935 as the SR-71 was in 1964 or Concorde in 1976. It incorporated in a single design a number of features that had recently become “shelf items”—that is, proven and available technologies—including a clean, streamlined shape; faired wing roots; smooth all-metal, stressed-skin construction; retractable landing gear; constant-speed propellers; landing flaps; and fully cowled supercharged radial engines. Today, we take all these for granted, but at the time they were, separately as well as collectively, exciting novelties. Each of these features provided not merely measurable but large and obvious gains. Together, they produced an airplane that doubled the cruising speed of its predecessors.

You would not suppose that the value of streamlining could ever have been in doubt. There were some beautifully streamlined airplanes during and after World War I. It’s obvious, however, if you look at a DC-3 alongside a Ford Trimotor, that the designers of commercial transports were slow to acknowledge its importance, evidently choosing to ignore a milestone lecture on the economic importance of drag reduction that French designer Louis Breguet had made to the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1922. Indeed, it was the aerodynamic refinement of the DC-3 that vindicated Breguet and made the aerial carriage of passengers an economically attractive proposition for the first time.

Another no-brainer that the great minds of the time failed to appreciate was retractable landing gear. Part of drag reduction was certainly hiding the undercarriage when it was not in use, but it was repeatedly argued that a well-faired fixed gear added practically no drag at all—an optimistic exaggeration, unless the rest of the airplane was unduly draggy—and that the mechanism for retracting gear would be unacceptably heavy (in fact, it wasn’t). Another, somewhat subtler obstacle to adopting retractable gear was the fact that converting an existing fixed-gear airplane was usually quite difficult; the structure had to be designed around the retraction system and wheel wells from the outset.

Read More by Peter Garrison: Technicalities

One of the signature achievements of NACA’s early years was the cowling completely enclosing a radial engine. These engines, which were light and powerful but presented an inconveniently large and bristling face to the wind, had generally been left entirely or partly uncowled for cooling, and so generated enormous drag. The NACA cowling was developed under the leadership of the formidable Fred Weick, to whom we also owe the tricycle landing gear and the Ercoupe. It added 10 to 20 mph to the speed of almost any airplane upon which it was installed. The gleeful excitement generated by its introduction in 1928 is palpable in NACA correspondence. Afterwards, a radial engine without a NACA cowling was almost unimaginable.

The first airplanes to embody the sum of NACA’s early work were the Douglas DC series. The great DC-3 was preceded by a slightly smaller and flatter-sided but otherwise similar model: the 14-passenger DC-2, of which about 200 were built. One of the first customers was the Dutch airline KLM, which entered its first DC-2 in a 1934 air race between London and Melbourne, Australia. The airplane flew a regular revenue route, carrying three passengers and a cargo of mail, and met with some mishaps and delays along the way. Nevertheless, it came in second only to a purpose-built de Havilland Comet racer. Another NACA-influenced American airliner, a Boeing 247, placed third, close behind the DC-2.

That two American commercial liners had outrun all but one of the airplanes that finished the 11,300-mile race was not lost on the aeronautical world. A British editor groaned that not even the best the Royal Air Force had to offer “is fast enough to have finished the race within a thousand miles of the American machines.” Britain, he wrote, had “won the greatest air race in history, but she has yet to start on an even greater air race: a race in commercial and military supremacy.” It was America that led the entire world in that race, largely thanks to the work of NACA.

When we look at the DC-3 today, we might think we are seeing an old-fashioned airplane. We overlook its essential modernity. The beauty of these collections of the lore of the N.A.C.A.—to restore for a euphonious moment its honorific article and periods—is that they carry us back to a time when all of the features of the DC-3 were new. Each was a breakthrough in a time when breakthroughs were made by single individuals or small teams and the thrill of success came mixed with the satisfaction of personal accomplishment.

On the subject of the French revolution, which he and his liberal-minded contemporaries believed—before it devolved into bloodbath and tyranny—to represent a new dawn of justice for mankind, the 19th-century British poet William Wordsworth wrote:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very heaven!

I have the same feeling, aeronauticswise, about the United States in 1920s and ’30s, when individual talent, public enthusiasm for air racing, a thriving industry, and a taxpayer-funded research organization converged to produce a period of thrillingly rapid evolution in airplane design. What a time it was to be in the creating side of aviation; how inconvenient then to have been unborn.