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VKF named in honor of von Kármán 60 years ago

  • Published
  • By Bradley Hicks
Sixty years ago, a test facility at Arnold Air Force Base was renamed in honor of the man who helped provide the blueprint that led to the construction of the now Arnold Engineering Development Complex headquartered at Arnold AFB.

During an Oct. 30, 1959, ceremony, the Gas Dynamics Facility was dedicated as the von Kármán Gas Dynamics Facility, a hypersonic wind tunnel testing facility, in honor of mathematician, physicist and engineer Dr. Theodore von Kármán.

The event marked the first time that the Air Force had named a major facility after a living person. Von Kármán addressed the crowd gathered for the ceremony.

“There is no doubt in my mind that this is the greatest honor that I have ever experienced,” von Kármán said. “But I would have thought the Air Force would have waited a few years until I had the occasion to look back at this from beyond infinity. I think that is really the tradition, that the scientist, if he gets something dedicated in his name, should already be dead. But I am glad the Air Force managed an exception and gave me the opportunity to accept this honor.”

Von Kármán, a native Jewish Hungarian, was born May 11, 1881. His mathematical prowess was evident from an early age. By the time he was 6 years old, von Kármán could reportedly multiply six-digit numbers in his head with the speed of a calculator. When he was 16, he was awarded the Eotvos Prize as the finest mathematics and science student in all of Hungary.

Von Kármán began his career studying fluid mechanics at the Göttingen Mathematical Institute in Germany, but he became interested in aeronautics after attending an aerial demonstration. He relocated to Aachen, Germany, to pursue his interest in aerodynamics. In 1912, he accepted the position of director of the Aachen Aeronautical Institute.

During World War I, von Kármán took on the role of director of research of the Austro-Hungarian Aviation Corps. Also an Austrian lieutenant during the war, von Kármán worked on helicopters, machine gun and propeller synchronization and fuel tank penetration while getting an up-close look at advancements in aerial warfare.

After the war, von Kármán resumed his position at the Aachen Aeronautical Institute and once again focused on aerodynamics research.

In the late 1920s, the California Institute of Technology, also known as Caltech, hired von Kármán to serve as a consultant for a new wind tunnel. By 1930, Caltech had added von Kármán to their staff as full-time director of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology. It was there that he made significant contributions to fluid mechanics, turbulence theory, supersonic flight, mathematics in engineering, aircraft structures and wind erosion of soil.

Von Kármán’s work caught the attention of Henry “Hap” Arnold, the man who would later become General of the Air Force. The two had several meetings to discuss the future of air research, and von Kármán began working with Arnold to advance the United States’ air force.

In 1939, Arnold asked von Kármán to design a 20-foot wind tunnel for Wright Field in Ohio. Toward the end of World War II, Arnold again sought von Kármán’s help. This time, Arnold asked him to establish a scientific advisory group to develop a blueprint for future air research.

In spring 1945, von Kármán and a group of scientists traveled to Europe and questioned German engineers about their progress in aviation during the war. The group also visited several facilities, including the Tyrolian Alps, where the world’s most powerful wind tunnel was then under construction.

In a 1945 letter to Arnold, von Kármán recommended the creation of new facilities that could help meet the objective of developing supersonic and pilotless aircraft.

That December, the group presented its findings in a report entitled Toward New Horizons. In it, they called for the creation of a research and development facility that could be used for the study and development of jet propulsion, supersonic aircraft and ballistic missiles.

“The Center for Supersonic and Pilotless Aircraft Development should be equipped with adequate wind tunnel facilities to attain speeds up to three times the velocity of sound, with large enough test sections to accommodate models of reasonable size, including jet propulsion units, and one ultrasonic wind tunnel for exploration of the upper frontier of the supersonic speed range,” the report states. “Ample facilities for the study of combustion and other characteristics of propulsion systems at very high altitudes should be provided.”

Construction on this facility, today known as Arnold Engineering Development Complex, would begin less than five years later.

Then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Thomas White provided a message to then-AEDC Commander Maj. Gen. Troup Miller Jr. for the Oct. 30, 1959, ceremony.

“There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that our survival as an independent country in a free world may well depend upon our technological preeminence and the extent of the support behind it,” White wrote. “The combined vision and collaborative effort of General Arnold, the military man, and Dr. von Kármán, the distinguished scientist, recognized this fact many years ago. Together, they did something about it. For this, our country should be eternally grateful.

“In naming the Gas Dynamics Facility in honor of Dr. von Kármán, the Air Force is dedicating a facility which already has proved of untold value in our national research and development programs, a facility which has the capacity to grow in importance and usefulness in step with technical advances as they occur. This is true because one man’s intuitive and crystal clear thinking has opened the door to greater successes in the future. That man is Doctor Theodore von Kármán.”

Von Kármán would make further contributions to the field of aerodynamics, including his involvement in the development of supersonic aircraft and intercontinental ballistic missiles, developed theories and co-founded the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. He was also a founder of the Aerojet Corporation.

He also received approval from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, more commonly referred to as NATO, to launch the NATO Advisory Group for Aeronautical Research and Development. Von Kármán chaired that group until his death in May 1963.

Von Kármán was posthumously recognized as an Honorary AEDC Fellow in 2002.

The VKF at Arnold is comprised of several wind tunnels used to obtain large aerodynamic and aerothermodynamic databases to develop supersonic and hypersonic flight vehicles. Customers use these facilities to conduct testing for static stability, pressure loads, jet interaction, store separation and vehicle staging, heat transfer, inlet integration, material sampling, thermal mapping, and dynamic stability, including forced and free oscillation.