Von Karman’s Way

Jan. 1, 2004

Hungarian-born Theodore von Karman is considered one of the great aeronautical scientists of the 20th century. Yet, his organizational achievements were no less important than his technical eminence. In all the history of aviation there has never been a more productive alliance than that of von Karman and Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold. The results of their efforts did much to bring the United States Air Force to its current state of unmatched capability and power.

Von Karman could interpret Arnold’s visions of the future, which were not always clearly stated. He gave Arnold new ideas and suggestions even as he established a strong liaison between military leaders, scientists, and academics. Arnold in turn gave von Karman the resources, facilities, contracts, methodology, and approval on a vastly larger scale than would otherwise have been possible. In addition, Arnold gave von Karman the broadest charter with which to shape future military aeronautical requirements and even military organization. This allowed von Karman to make full use of his gigantic talents to guide the Air Force to conform to Arnold’s inspired perception.

The two men had vastly different backgrounds and personalities. Many were surprised that they not only hit it off but also worked well together. Where the irascible Arnold often was direct to the point of rudeness, von Karman was always indirect, persuading rather than commanding others to do his will. Arnold was a big, bluff man who was impatient with subordinates not working swiftly enough to suit him. Von Karman was not self-effacing, but certainly was never belligerent. More than anything else, they differed in what would today be called their “operational tempo.” While Arnold was always going full speed, driving his aides to do more and more, faster and faster, von Karman mixed business and pleasure constantly.

While many of his colleagues held themselves out as pure scientists, von Karman did not stop at the level of theory. He also engaged in practical matters across the entire spectrum of flight. He worked with and contributed to the practical design of helicopters, Zeppelins, and all manner of aircraft, from gliders to rocket-powered airplanes. An early advocate of wind tunnels, he improved their design and saw to it that they were available when needed at the institutions he supported.

Although his persona and his normal method of operation were not overly dynamic, he was a great organizer and administrator, a leader who seemed to dispense with paperwork but who nonetheless had in his mind at all times the budget figures of every department under his control.

Four factors produced von Karman’s ability to foster aeronautical progress. His technical genius was revealed early and confirmed in the many discoveries and hundreds of papers produced throughout his long life. He had a vision of the future that surpassed that of his contemporaries and largely came to fruition during his lifetime. He was able to provide counsel to people at many levels—from military leaders to students. Finally, he had a gift for leadership that was most often exercised without giving orders.

A Prodigy

Theodore von Karman was a third son, born to a middle-class Jewish family in Budapest on May 11, 1881. His father, Maurice von Karman, was a distinguished professor of philosophy and education at the Peter Pazmany University in Budapest. Theodore’s mother, Helen, came from a long line of scholars and was herself a brilliant and cultured woman.

Theodore first displayed his mathematical brilliance at the age of six by easily multiplying six-figure numbers in his head far more swiftly than the adults he was entertaining could do on paper. For fear that his technical ability would overwhelm his educational development in other areas such as history and literature, his father banned high-level mathematical training until he was older.

Curiously, von Karman got off to a comparatively slow start in his career, partly because of the nature of European academe at the time, partly because of the adverse effects of his rivalry with Ludwig Prandtl (who for many years was deemed the dean of aerodynamics), and partly because of his required military service.

Von Karman in 1902 graduated with distinction from the Royal Joseph University of Polytechnics and Economics in Budapest. His first published paper dealt with a mathematical formula used to calculate the mass needed to prevent valve clatter in a piston engine. Von Karman had a faculty for sensing the basic physical elements of an abstract process, then analyzing these with relatively simple mathematics. He next tested the results in the laboratory and then followed through with an application to the real engineering problem.

He was called into the Royal Austro–Hungarian Army and served for a year in the artillery, leaving in 1903 with a reserve commission and returning to Budapest to become an assistant professor at Royal Joseph. In 1906, he produced his first internationally recognized paper, “The Theory of Buckling and Compression Tests on Long Slender Columns.” It proved invaluable for engineers designing bridges, buildings, and aircraft.

Later that year, he received a fellowship to the University of Goettingen in Germany, where he began his long rivalry with Prandtl. Prandtl observed in later years that von Karman tended to reap the fame associated with discoveries without spending the conventional amounts of time in the trenches of basic research. It did not help matters that von Karman published the paper “On the Mechanism of the Resistance That a Moving Body Experiences in a Fluid”—a subject that Prandtl had been investigating.

At the beginning, Prandtl was von Karman’s teacher and gave freely of his knowledge. Von Karman’s reputation began to grow as a result of a series of well-received papers. Prandtl, through jealousy or indifference, then would do nothing to foster von Karman’s career.

Long Wait

It was six years before a position opened for von Karman. He arrived at the Aerodynamics Institute of Aachen, Germany, as director in February 1913 and immediately set about trying to make it a premier center for aerodynamic research. He became friends of the German industrialist Hugo Junkers, who gave von Karman contacts and contracts. His first achievement was to transform the Aachen wind tunnel, from a traditional open-ended system into the more modern closed circulating system. The new tunnel tested basic designs that led to the successful series of Junkers all-metal, cantilever-wing aircraft.

When World War I broke out in August 1914, von Karman was recalled to active duty. In February 1915, he designed gun emplacements for the defense of Budapest. In August 1915, he was made director of research for the Austro–Hungarian Aviation Corps and given extensive facilities and staff. It was an ideal assignment, and he converted a Zeppelin hangar into a laboratory that investigated a host of ideas, including self-sealing fuel tanks and machine gun synchronizers.

He emphasized development of the PKZ 1 helicopter, called the Schraubenfesselflieger (“rotor-driven tethered aircraft”). It was intended to substitute for the dangerously flammable observation balloons used in artillery spotting. Powered by an Austro–Daimler electric motor, it had a rotor speed of 700 rpm and made at least four flights. Von Karman’s colleague, Engineer Lieutenant Wilhelm Zurovec, continued the design with the PZK 2, which employed three 100 hp Gnome rotary engines and featured counter-rotating rotors.

When the war ended in victory for the Allies, restrictions were placed on foreign travel for enemy officers, so von Karman remained in Budapest, serving as his father had in the Ministry of Education. In 1919, he returned to Aachen, which he turned into the pre-eminent aeronautical institution.

The Hungarian expatriate gained fame with his sponsorship of the 1922 International Congress on Aerodynamics and Hydrodynamics in Innsbruck, Austria. He broke precedent by inviting members from nations that had opposed each other in the war.

Prophetic Decision

In 1926, von Karman made the most important decision of his life. Against the advice of his mother, he agreed to come to the United States to accept an offer to consult for the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. Noted physicist Robert A. Millikan, who was chairman of Cal Tech’s executive council, had persuaded von Karman to come in the hope that, once he experienced the California climate, handsome salary (some three times his earnings in Aachen), new facilities, and opportunity to create a new aeronautical center, he would agree to stay.

Stay he did, although he did not make a formal decision until October 1929. By then, he had seen many things, including the rise of a Nazi movement in Germany that foreshadowed oppression for the country’s Jews.

In Pasadena, von Karman achieved the same scientific, organizational, pedagogical, administrative, and public relations success as in Aachen. He developed a close working relationship with the Douglas Aircraft Co., which initially provided instructors for the institute’s airplane design courses. The institute completed construction of the laboratory, including, as its major research facility, a 200 mph wind tunnel. The tunnel was soon operating full time and was available to other aircraft manufacturers. Just as Millikan had hoped, Southern California was becoming a magnet for aviation.

Although Cal Tech did not graduate many students, those it did were outstanding and all benefitted from a close relationship with von Karman, who became a US citizen in 1936. It was von Karman who recognized the genius in such students as Frank J. Malina, even though Malina’s interest in rocketry was foreign to him. (Malina went on to help found NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and was instrumental in rocket science development.)

With students such as Malina and many achievements in the industry, von Karman in 10 years had raised the Guggenheim lab to the level of Goettingen, where his old rival, Prandtl, still held sway. In addition, von Karman reached a peak in his own field with the presentation of a paper entitled “Mechanical Similarity and Turbulence” and had the pleasure of presenting it to the Goettingen Scientific Society. When von Karman verified the works experimentally, and published the results in the Journal of the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences, Prandtl had to acknowledge his pre-eminence.

Far from being of mere academic interest, von Karman’s law of turbulence affected almost every aspect of aviation, from the declining field of airships to the barely explored field of rocketry and the supersonic aircraft of the future.

Oddly enough, von Karman’s long and fertile association with Hap Arnold began with rocketry, a field in which neither man had a strong interest. Von Karman, placing his confidence more in Malina and his associates than in rocketry itself, allowed what became known on campus as the “Suicide Club” to carry on experiments that ultimately led to the first work with jet-assisted takeoffs (JATO). Von Karman, with his sense of public relations, used the term “jet” rather than “rocket” because the latter was denigrated by many scientists as being “Buck Rogers-ish.”

Meeting Arnold

Millikan and Arnold were friends from World War I, and Arnold often visited Cal Tech, where Millikan introduced Arnold to von Karman. Despite their differences in appearance and outlook, they became friends. Von Karman, who remembered his days as a junior officer, was pleased that Arnold, obviously a rising star in the Army Air Corps, treated him with respect.

On a visit in May 1938, Arnold became aware of the rocketry experiments at Cal Tech and saw their potential for assisting heavyweight takeoffs. Reuben H. Fleet of Consolidated Aircraft was also interested, and, as a result, a contract was let for a JATO feasibility report. It took months of experimentation, but the combination of von Karman’s theoretical equations and Malina’s experimentation proved successful. On Aug. 12, 1941, Capt. Homer A. Boushey, a Cal Tech graduate, made the first successful US JATO takeoff, piloting an Ercoupe, a small civilian airplane, at March Field, Calif.

From this point on, the association between Arnold and von Karman—and between science and the Air Corps—became ever closer. Arnold, who had become Chief of Air Corps in September 1938, realized the Army Air Corps desperately needed to pursue aeronautical research and development to bring it on a par with European air forces.

As Arnold became busier, so did von Karman. In addition to his Cal Tech duties, von Karman in March 1942 began supervising the newly founded Aerojet Engineering Corp. to build JATO units for the military.

In mid-1943, the US Army Air Forces became aware of the existence of the large German rockets that would ultimately be known as the V-2. Arnold asked von Karman to comment on the probability of the success of such a rocket. Drawing on the talents of his Suicide Club disciples, von Karman rendered an opinion that such a rocket was feasible and could strike Great Britain from the Continent.

As a result, he was asked to begin immediate, large-scale rocket experiments, commencing with a one-year, $3 million contract. To execute the contract, von Karman on Nov. 1, 1944, set up at Cal Tech what later became known as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Thus, within less than three years, he had founded two organizations that would have enormous influence on the future of American aeronautics and aerospace.

Arnold and von Karman were both workhorses and both neglected their health. In September 1944, Arnold was suffering from a heart condition, and von Karman was recovering from surgery. They met at LaGuardia Field, N.Y., conducting their talks in Arnold’s staff car. In essence, Arnold told von Karman that the war was won and that the future was his biggest concern. He asked his old friend to form a group of the best, most practical scientists to determine the effect on airpower of jet propulsion, atomic energy, electronics, and all of the developments that had occurred during World War II.

Charting the Future

Von Karman chose four key associates: Hugh L. Dryden, George S. Schairer, Frank Wattendorf, and Vladimir Zworykin. They, in turn, selected an elite group to form what would be known as the Scientific Advisory Group (later the Scientific Advisory Board). The group was the key to charting the future of an independent Air Force, although von Karman later had to fight to maintain its influence.

Arnold, his health failing and his time as Commanding General of the AAF growing short, tasked von Karman to make a survey of advances in aeronautics by the Axis powers and compile a report.

Von Karman did so with his customary gusto. In the process, he interviewed Prandtl, who was still director at Goettingen and unembarrassed by his support of the Nazi regime.

The report came to Arnold in two parts. The first, Where We Stand, was submitted on Aug. 22, 1945. It predicted, among other things, supersonic flight, intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads, surface-to-air missiles, vastly improved communications, more capable electronics, and in-flight refueling.

Even more powerful was the second part, Toward New Horizons. It was the work of an outstanding group of 25 scientists, who produced 33 monographs, arranged in 11 volumes. In these, the scientists pointed out the basic scientific potential that could change the future of airpower.

Von Karman wrote the first volume himself, calling it Science, the Key to Air Supremacy, and presented it to Arnold on Dec. 15, 1945. In it, he warned of the danger of a future atomic exchange and called on the United States to spend the necessary research and development funds to erect a defense of its territory. In passages that have eerie application to today’s conditions, he advocated a powerful air attack that could reach remote targets quickly and would allow the immediate establishment of air superiority.

Von Karman extended his opening volume to include advice on improving the interaction of both the military and industry with civilian scientific organizations, universities, and laboratories.

After Arnold retired in June 1946, he was succeeded by Gen. Carl A. Spaatz, who believed in research and development but did not have Arnold’s visceral interest in the matter. To compensate, von Karman recruited younger officers such as Donald L. Putt (who would lead Air Research and Development Command and serve as military director of the Scientific Advisory Board) and Bernard A. Schriever (who is known as the architect of the Air Force’s ICBM and space programs) and called on veterans such as Jimmy Doolittle to back his cause. His efforts carried the day.

Honors began to flood in from all over the world. Britain’s prestigious Royal Society made von Karman a member. He received the Presidential Medal of Merit and eight honorary doctorates. When he received the Air Force Association’s Science Trophy, the citation read, “It is virtually impossible to find a branch of aeronautics in which Dr. von Karman has not taken a major, active interest.”

Almost singlehandedly, and against military opposition in many North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries, von Karman succeeded in creating the NATO Advisory Group for Aeronautical Research and Development. He overcame problems in funding, personnel, and mission specification to establish what corresponded to USAF’s Scientific Advisory Board for NATO’s newly emerging air forces.

In his later years, von Karman continued his whirlwind pace, accumulating more honors and writing still more papers. In 1961, his 80th birthday was celebrated in the Washington, D.C., Sheraton Park Hotel, and attendees included Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and senior scientists and military men from the United States and other nations. His last, and perhaps most satisfying, honor came on Feb. 18, 1963, in the Rose Garden of the White House. There, President John F. Kennedy presented him with the first National Medal of Science, recognizing all that von Karman had done for aeronautics and the new age of space.

Theodore von Karman died on May 7, 1963.

Walter J. Boyne, former director of the National Air and Space Museum, is a retired Air Force colonel and author. During 2003, he published five new books and edited six more. They include his latest, Operation Iraqi Freedom: What Went Right, What Went Wrong, and Why; as well as Dawn Over Kitty Hawk: The Novel of the Wright Brothers; The Influence of Air Power Upon History; The Chronicle of Flight; and Rising Tide: The Untold Story of the Russian Submarines That Fought the Cold War (with Gary E. Weir). His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The TacticalSchool,” appeared in the September 2003 issue.