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NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center recently celebrated its 50th year of exploration, discovery and contributions to the aerospace industry. Today this facility continues to develop technological and operational improvements that benefit military and civil aviation.

Back in 1946, when World War II was just over and the primary aviation challenge was to break the sound barrier, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor of today’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), needed a place to fly research airplanes fast, loud and without complaints from the neighbors. The wide-open spaces of California’s Mojave Desert offered good flying weather and sparse population, perfect for high-speed and classified flight operations.

The Dryden facility was originally called the NACA High Speed Flight Station. It was born when a small group of NACA engineers set up shop at what is now Edwards Air Force Base in Muroc, Calif., to join with Bell Aircraft and the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) to fly the rocket-powered X-1 past the speed of sound, which they soon did.

The X-1 was followed by other X-planes in an ever-busier research program that saw speed and altitude records broken so often that they frequently stood only until the next flight. The prairie dogs around Muroc have certainly watched a variety of strange aircraft over the years, from speed streakers such as the X-1 and X-3 to potato-shaped lifting bodies that presaged the space shuttle and “flying bedsteads” that taught astronauts to land on the moon. Less visible were the research efforts in propulsion, efficiency and safety that found their way into today’s air and space craft.

We look forward to another half century and more of Dryden’s characteristic hands-on approach to aeronautical research that reflects Wilbur Wright’s dictum of 1901–that to really learn about flight, man had to “mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial.”

And, to those who cared and dared…

We all enjoy the nuts-and-bolts history of aviation–the aircraft. Just as fascinating are the people behind the aircraft. The National Aeronautic Association and the Aero Club of Washington (D.C.) established the Elder Statesman of Aviation Award in 1954 to honor “outstanding Americans, who by their efforts over a period of years, have made contributions of significant value to aeronautics, and who have reflected credit upon America and themselves.”

The list of award recipients over the years reads like a Who’s Who of aviation, and properly so. The 1996 recipients reflect a broad cross section of aviation accomplishments and interests.

Charles L. “Chip” Collins has been a pilot for 62 years and is rated in more than 50 different aircraft. He won multiple awards as a World War II pilot, and his test-pilot work resulted in significant contributions to aviation. James R. Greenwood was instrumental during WWII in developing parachutes and other emergency equipment. He has been an aviation safety advocate, a tireless promoter of general aviation. Frank L. Jensen, Jr., enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 15, switched services to become an Army air crewman, and served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. He is known as “Mr. Helicopter” for building the Helicopter Association International into a worldwide organization devoted to the promotion and development of civil helicopter aviation.

Curtis Pitts lent his name to the little biplane that defines aerobatics–the agile Pitts Special that revolutionized the sport. His diminutive biplane is the dream of every pilot, and its design has spawned a number of emulators. J. Dawson Ransome became a pilot in 1938 and earned the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross with the Royal Canadian Air Force and the USAAF during WWII. After the war, he founded Ransome Airlines, which served as a model for today’s commuter and regional air carriers.

Karl Stefan served as a Navy fighter pilot during WWII and later became a leader in the lighter-than-air field, founding two manufacturing companies and setting several ballooning records. He was an original member of the Balloon Federation of America and a longtime U.S. delegate to the International Ballooning Commission. Jean Kaye Tinsley began flying in the mid-1940s and became an applications engineer and aviation technical writer. She is best-known for her contributions to the helicopter industry. She was the first president of the Helicopter Club of America and is the executive director of the Whirly Girls.

We salute you, Elder Statesmen, for contributing to an aviation history we all can be proud of.

Arthur H. Sanfelici, Editor, Aviation History