The Heyday of Propeller Airliners(1941-1958)

The NACA Looks Beyond Propellers

While propeller-driven airliners were enjoying their "golden age," the NACA was doing research that would help create a new generation of high-speed passenger planes.

As the Cold War took hold after World War II, the United States anxiously stepped up aeronautical research to enhance the nation's security in an uncertain world. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) began to focus on the challenges of transonic and supersonic flight.

Although intended primarily for military purposes, the results of the NACA's research greatly benefited the future development of high-speed airliners. As proof of its pioneering work during this time, the NACA won the coveted Collier Trophy four times.

Boeing 707 Prototype
Coutesy NASA

While today's jet airliners fly most efficiently at high subsonic speed, air flows over their wings at transonic and even supersonic speeds. To make high-subsonic flight safe and efficient, aircraft companies developing jetliners in the 1950s depended upon the NACA's pioneering transonic research.

Douglas D558-1 Skystreak
National Air and Space Museum Archives

The NACA and the Navy designed and tested the Douglas
D-558-1 Skystreak. They used it to study the difficulties of transonic flight, during which the airflow over the wings becomes unpredictable and unstable. Because it was jet powered, the Skystreak could collect data for much longer periods than the rocket-powered Bell X-1, which was faster but had a short range.

Bell X-1
Getty Images

On October 14, 1947, Capt. Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager piloted the rocket-powered Bell X-1 to Mach 1.06, destroying the myth of the "sound barrier." Working with the Air Force and Bell Aircraft, the NACA made critical contributions to the design of the wings, the fuselage, and the crucial adjustable stabilizer. The NACA used the X-1 to study the dangerous problem of air compressibility and powerful shock wave formation during transonic flight. The Bell X-1 now hangs in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall.

8-Foot High Speed Tunnel
NASA

Gathering test data about transonic flight was difficult, because conventional wind tunnels would "choke" on shock waves bouncing along their walls. In 1950, John Stack and his associates at the NACA's Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory built the first "slotted" wind tunnel, which resolved this problem.

Douglas Skyrocket
U.S. Navy via Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum

The NACA and the Navy developed the Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket to learn more about the characteristics of swept-wing aircraft. Flight testing revealed the problem of the nose pitching up at high speeds, which they solved, paving the way for swept-wing military and civilian aircraft. On November 20, 1953, NACA test pilot A. Scott Crossfield became the first to fly faster than twice the speed of sound in the Skyrocket, which now hangs nearby above the escalator.

NASA Logo
NASA

The Cold War pushed the United States into expanding all its scientific research. One result was the NACA's entry into astronautical research. On October 1, 1958, almost one year after the Soviet Union orbited the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was formed, absorbing the NACA. Despite its focus on spaceflight, NASA continues to pioneer new discoveries in aeronautics.