Dr. Theodore von Kármán’s vision continues to be realized at AEDC

  • Published
  • By Bradley Hicks
  • AEDC Public Affairs

May 7, 2023, marks 60 years since the world lost Dr. Theodore von Kármán, but his legacy endures with every wind tunnel, ballistics and engine test conducted in an Arnold Engineering Development Complex facility. 

The esteemed mathematician, physicist and engineer is credited with helping provide the guidance that led to the construction of the aerospace ground test site at Arnold Air Force Base, Tenn.

On Oct. 30, 1959, AEDC honored von Kármán for his contributions and his role in bringing the complex to fruition by renaming the Gas Dynamics Facility, wind tunnel test facility at Arnold AFB, the von Kármán Gas Dynamics Facility.

Then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Thomas White provided then-AEDC Commander Maj. Gen. Troup Miller Jr. with a message to be shared at the dedication ceremony.

“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,” White wrote. “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.”

A native Jewish Hungarian, von Kármán was born May 11, 1881. It seems numerical know-how ran in von Kármán’s family, as he traced his scientific roots to Judah Loew ben Bezalel, a great 16th century mathematician at the imperial court of Prague.

Von Kármán’s own mastery of math was on display at 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. At 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 his interest shifted to aeronautics after attending an aerial demonstration. Determined to leave his mark in the field of aerodynamics, von Kármán relocated to Aachen, Germany, to pursue this interest. In 1912, he accepted the position of director of the Aachen Aeronautical Institute.

In 1915, von Kármán found himself in the middle of World War I. He took on the role of director of research of the Austro-Hungarian Aviation Corps. In this post, he began groundbreaking work on helicopters, machine gun and propeller synchronization, and fuel tank penetration.

As an Austrian lieutenant during the war, von Kármán witnessed firsthand advancements in aerial warfare.

After the war, von Kármán resumed his position at the Aachen Aeronautical Institute, once again directing his attention toward aerodynamics research. Meanwhile, von Kármán’s work had garnered its share of attention in the U.S., particularly from the California Institute of Technology, also known as Caltech.

In 1920, Caltech hired von Kármán to serve as consultant for a new wind tunnel the university was planning. Von Kármán helped Caltech researchers nail down the design of this tunnel and would then spend the next few years splitting time between Aachen and Caltech.

By 1930, Caltech had added von Kármán to the university staff as full-time director of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory. It was in this role 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 laboratory at Caltech was regarded as a focal point in the world of aeronautical research.

Von Kármán’s work caught the attention of then-Brig. Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, who went on to become the commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II and who, coincidentally, on May 7, 1949, was appointed the first general of the U.S. Air Force, a five-star rank, after it became its own military branch. Arnold sought von Kármán’s expertise, and the two had several meetings to discuss the future of air research.

Von Kármán, while still on the staff at Caltech, began working with Arnold to advance the United States’ aerial warfare forces. Both concurred that having a cooperative aeronautics establishment between civilian scientists and members of the military would be most advantageous.

In 1939, Arnold requested that von Kármán design a 20-foot wind tunnel for the Wright Field military installation in Ohio. The facility, considered the first of its kind, was necessary for the Army Air Corps to make major advances in flight.

Near the end of World War II, Arnold asked von Kármán to establish a scientific advisory group to develop a blueprint for future air research.

In the spring of 1945, von Kármán and a group of fellow scientists traveled to Europe to question German scientists and engineers about their rapid progress in aviation during the Second World War. Von Kármán and his group also visited several German and Austrian facilities, including the Bavarian Motor Works aircraft engine factory in Munich, the Aerodynamic Laboratory formerly at Peenemünde, and Ötztal in the Tryolean 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.

In December of that same year, von Kármán and his group presented their findings in a report entitled Toward New Horizons.

“I believe that Toward New Horizons, along with a companion volume, Science: The Key to Air Supremacy, was the first exhaustive report of its kind in the history of the American military forces,” von Kármán wrote in his autobiography The Wind and Beyond. “It definitively made the point that the Air Force was the major defense arm of the nation and that defense was clearly dependent on a continuous input of technological and scientific progress. It included technical forecasting for five or ten years ahead as a military requirement, and it created an atmosphere for basic scientific research in the Air Force.”

In Toward New Horizons, the group called for the establishment of an Air Force research 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 stated. “Ample facilities for the study of combustion and other characteristics of propulsion systems at very high altitudes should be provided.”

Construction on such a center, today the headquarters of AEDC at Arnold AFB, began less than five years later.

When the Gas Dynamics Facility wind tunnel testing facility was dedicated as the von Kármán Gas Dynamics Facility in October 1959, it marked the first time the Air Force named a major facility after a living person.

“There is no doubt in my mind that this is the greatest honor I have ever experienced,” von Kármán said during the ceremony. “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 went on to make further contributions to the field of aerodynamics, including his involvement in the development of supersonic aircraft and intercontinental ballistic missiles. He developed a number of theories, such as the effects of forces and currents on aircraft and spacecraft, and he co-founded the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

He was also a founder of the Aerojet Corporation.

He 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 this group until his death.

Von Kármán was the first recipient of the National Medal of Science awarded by President John Kennedy. He was named to the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1983 for his outstanding contributions to aviation and space technology, and he received the Presidential Medal of Merit and eight honorary doctorates.

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