Post-War Developments: 1946-1956

The Boeing Airplane Co. ... The Secret of the Sweep

Well, here we'd been searching all these years for ways to make our airplanes go faster, and here was the knowledge.... Anyhow, we were very pleased to have the idea.
-- Boeing aerodynamicist, George Schairer

As World War II ended, wind-tunnel data found in Germany launched the Boeing B-47, the country's first multiengine swept-wing jet bomber, and North American's F-86 Sabre Jet, the country's first swept-wing jet fighter. Both dictated the shape of all jet airplanes to come.

In charge of finding the data was Hungarian-born scientist Theodore von Kármán, who came to America as a result of the changing political climate in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s. He was director of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, built wind tunnels at Cal Tech and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and acted as a consultant for the Boeing wind tunnel in Seattle, Wash. While in Seattle, von Kármán developed a close working relationship with George Schairer, Boeing chief aerodynamicist.

As World War II ended, USAAF Gen. Hap Arnold asked von Kármán to assemble a team of scientists to go to Germany on a discovery mission. Von Kármán asked Schairer to join the group. In May 1945, they went to a secret aeronautical research center near Volkenrode, Germany. There they found piles of ashes, indicating that the Germans had burned most of their records. However, further questioning of remaining German staff led the investigating team to a dry well. It was full of hidden documents.

"Among them were papers describing the swept-back wing and providing considerable wind-tunnel data, which showed clearly that the sweepback plane had superior qualities near the speed of sound," von Kármán recalled. "These data were the first of their kind."

On May 10, Schairer wrote a seven-page letter back to the United States that included a picture of the swept wing and, in cramped handwriting, presented the key mathematical formulas. To avoid delay, Schairer wrote "Censored" on the envelope and mailed it.

So it was that the swept wing flew into this country, carried by an ordinary postage stamp.

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