Remembering the road to AEDC 70 years later

  • Published
  • By Deidre Moon
During a June 25, 1951, ceremony at Arnold Air Force Base, President Harry S. Truman unveiled a plaque dedicating the Air Engineering Development Center as the Arnold Engineering Development Center in honor of General of the Air Force, Henry H. “Hap” Arnold. Arnold had passed away before the ceremony, but his vision was instrumental in bringing the center to fruition.

Thousands of people braved the heat that June day, not only to hear and see the president but witness the start of something important in the field of aviation and aeronautics.

During his speech, Truman said, “The scientists who work here will explore what lies on the other side of the speed of sound. This is part of our effort to make our air power the best in the world – and to keep it the best in the world. This applies to the planes of the Air Force, the Navy and our Marines. It applies to our guided missiles and all the future development that science may bring.”

Prior to this momentous dedication, however, Truman took the first steps in officially establishing a ground test center at Arnold AFB on Oct. 27 and 28, 1949, by signing the Unitary Wind Tunnel Plan Act and the Air Engineering Development Center Act of 1949.

The first bill authorized a unitary plan for the construction of transonic and supersonic wind tunnel facilities in an effort to bolster national defense. The second bill, signed the following day, authorized the $100 million appropriated by Congress for the construction of the Air Engineering Development Center, the site that would soon become known as the Arnold Engineering Development Center and eventually the Arnold Engineering Development Complex.

Gen. Arnold proposes idea of test center

But even before the passage of these laws, Gen. Arnold had insisted that a research and development testing site was necessary for the future of the U.S. Air Force.

It was when Arnold, who was commanding general of what was the Army Air Forces during World War II, visited England in spring of 1941 that he observed a British plane flying without a propeller. He wanted to bring this type of capability to the U.S. military.

Knowing that developing new equipment would require the establishment of research and development organizations and better testing facilities, Arnold met with renowned mathematician, engineer and physicist Dr. Theodore von Kármán in New York in 1944 to discuss the future defense needs of the nation.

Arnold asked von Kármán to form an advisory group tasked with providing recommendations on the direction of future aviation research. At Arnold’s request, members of this group visited Germany in May 1945 to view test and research facilities captured during World War II. They found facilities, aircraft, engines and rockets more advanced than the Allied nations had imagined.

Among those who made the trip to Germany was American scientist Dr. Frank Wattendorf. After surveying the superior German ground testing facilities, Wattendorf penned a report known as the Trans-Atlantic Memo. This June 1945 report would become the baseline for establishing “a new Air Forces development center.”

The Trans-Atlantic Memo was provided to Brig. Gen. Franklin O. Carroll, who was then commander of the engineering division at Wright Field, which was later combined with the nearby Patterson Field to form Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Using information from the report, Carroll delivered a presentation to Arnold’s Air Staff. Carroll discussed the advancements the Germans had made in ground testing while noting the deficiencies in American wind tunnels.

Carroll, who would later become the first AEDC commander, requested the Air Technical Service Command conduct a preliminary study “for the establishment of a new Army Air Force’s Applied Research and Development Center for Fluid Dynamics.”

A committee was formed to complete this study, and the group released a report on Dec. 18, 1945, less than a week before “Toward New Horizons” was published. “Toward New Horizons” was a report from von Kármán’s group that visited Germany, in which they proposed a facility for the study and development of jet propulsion, supersonic aircraft and ballistic missiles. The envisioned facility was brought to life with the eventual construction of the Air Engineering Development Center.

Both reports recommended the use of captured German test facilities in a new installation in order to save time of facility design and construction. It was also recommended that the installation be located near large sources of water and electric power.

Tennessee Valley selected as possible site
After a report titled “Proposed Air Engineering Development Center” was presented to the Air Staff in January 1946, a $1.5 million Army Air Forces contract was awarded to Sverdrup & Parcel Inc., an engineering firm based out of St. Louis, Missouri, to conduct further planning for the proposed center. Sverdrup & Parcel Inc. recommended several possible sites for the new center, including Moses Lake in Washington, Grand Wash Cliffs in Arizona and the Tennessee Valley area. The Moses Lake site was considered too vulnerable to attack, and a water dispute between Arizona and California essentially disqualified the Grand Wash Cliffs site from consideration.

Huntsville, Alabama, then became the preferred site, as the Army was preparing to deactivate the Redstone Arsenal, and the use of this site could save time in the construction of housing and offices for the Air Engineering Development Center. However, the Army changed course on the Redstone closure after the Air Force began to take interest in it.

U.S. Sen. Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee then stepped in with an offer. He said the state could donate Camp Forrest to the Air Force for the center.

Camp Forrest was an active Army post located in southern middle Tennessee. The camp was active between 1941 and 1946 and was initially used as a training center for infantry, artillery, engineering and signal units. Camp Forrest became a prisoner of war camp in May 1942. After the end of World War II, the camp was closed. It was declared surplus in 1946 and dismantled.

Along with the Camp Forrest site, McKellar offered to help push necessary legislation through Congress, and the Air Force accepted.
On April 28, 1948, the year after the Air Force officially separated from the Army to become its own branch of the military, Camp Forrest was named as the site for the new Air Force Engineering Development Center.

In early March 1950, the year after Congress authorized $100 million for the construction of the Air Engineering Development Center and less than 5 months after the signing of Unitary Wind Tunnel Plan Act and Air Engineering Development Center Act of 1949, the Secretary of the Defense approved the construction of the center. That June, the Army Corps of Engineers began construction on a perimeter fence and access road. Later that month, work began on a dam on the Elk River to create what would become known as Woods Reservoir to provide cooling water for testing facilities.

It was directed that the new center would be operated by a corporation under contract to the Air Force. On June 29, 1950, the Arnold Research Organization, or ARO, the corporation established to manage and operate the center, was awarded a contract from the Air Force to cover the first 15 months of operation.

Gen. Arnold died in January 1950. On June 25 of the following year, the site was dedicated in Arnold’s honor, naming it the Arnold Engineering Development Center.

Construction of facilities and testing quickly followed, and by Oct. 21, 1952, supersonic airflow was first achieved at AEDC in the one-foot transonic wind tunnel, known as “PeeWee.”
The following year, construction on the Engine Test Facility at Arnold was completed, and a supersonic test of the Air Force Falcon air-to-air missile was performed in what would come to be known as the von Kármán Gas Dynamics Facility.

The Arnold Engineering Development Center was re-designated as Arnold Engineering Development Complex in July 2012.