American Women & Wind Tunnels: A Photo Essay

Manometer apparatus undergoing checks by two technicians at a supersonic wind tunnel facility in the Cold War winter of 1949. A manometer is a type of pressure gauge used to take readings of aerodynamic force via apertures drilled into a wind tunnel model.
A reflective moment in 1996 during the Hyper X project for a pilotless research vehicle. The Hyper X model is shown with a Pegasus booster rocket in a Mach 6-capable wind tunnel with a 20-inch bore. The Wright Brothers began all this with a bench-mounted wood-and-metal box for testing airflow over components of their 1901 Wright Flyer.  Did it take too long to get women into wind tunnels? Yes, unfortunately.

Autumn 1928 – Amelia Earhart is photographed at the front door of NACA’s facilities at Langley, Virginia. Apparently, the high-speed wind tunnel would damage her raccoon coat that day. The first true wind tunnel building was put up in Paris in 1912. Gustave Eiffel, who gave the world its favourite cast-iron tower, investigated aerodynamic forces throughout his career. The Paris installation was quickly imitated at larger and larger scales elsewhere and is still in use today. 
TThe YF-17 was a proposed lightweight fighter passed over in favour of the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Somewhat to Northrop’s chagrin, the YF-17 effort led to the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet.
In the front row, first from the right, is Mary Jackson. She was a pioneer in America’s postwar aerospace sector. She went to work for the National Aeronautics Advisory Committee as a human computer in 1951. Despite any number of discouraging systemic difficulties, Jackson advanced through night school study of physics and engineering. She was the first African-American female engineer at NACA/NASA. The recent book and movie Hidden Figures highlight the work Jackson and other women of colour did behind the scenes during the space race that was not fully acknowledged at the time. Jackson won medals and honours, published twelve papers and always worked hard to help others.
Source: NASA via Wikimedia Commons.
Careful record-keeping is essential at the wind tunnels. The attentiveness of Hazel Redding and Billie Walker here at a NACA low-speed facility remind of us that decades later. The wind tunnel, quite literally, has shaped the world around us. Everything, from bicycle helmets to sports cars and skyscrapers, has been studied via wind tunnel. Aircraft are the most critical artifacts tested in them. Sometimes this involves scale models but often enough the full machine is set up and the fans turned on. We wouldn’t have modern aviation without these grand laboratories and the women who worked in them.
That’s civilian pilot Jerrie Cobb at NACA’s Altitude Wind Tunnel ”flying” an astronaut selection and training tool called the Gimbal Rig. She was part of a privately funded effort staged alongside the development programme of the first American male astronauts. While the women did as well or better than the men their programme was given short shrift and the first female astronaut from the West did not go into space until Sally Ride did in 1983.

Wiring work proceeds on the wings of a wooden test model for a large, four-engine flying boat in 1946 at what would become NASA’s Langley Research Center.  Sure, the finished product will be noisy and exciting and get all the attention.  Behind the scenes, though, this is exactly the quiet, patient work that advances engineering and science and that women are great at.    

That’s a Teledyne Ryan 262 Manta Ray and it’s looking quite up-to-date for its time. The Manta Ray was part of a technology demonstration program conducted by the US Navy in 1976-77. The idea was to create a cheap, semi-stealthy observation drone.

Source: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive via Flickr.
A scale model of a proposed supersonic airliner is held by Dr. Christine Darden while she worked for NASA in its research efforts to support aerospace firms investigating such planes. Development costs and an uncertain market for these machines would prove controversial to say the least. Issues regarding safety, sonic booms and damage to the ozone layer tipped several such projects into cancellation by the mid-1970s.

– Stephen Caulfield

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