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When, at age six, Theodore von Kármán was able to multiply six-digit numbers in his head, his father—a famous teacher and educational reformer in Hungary—became alarmed that his child would become “some kind of a freak,” and forbade him to think about mathematics anymore, ordering him to read history, poetry, and geography instead. Luckily for subsequent history, von Kármán ignored his father’s stricture. As a teenager he won a national prize in mathematics, then a fellowship to the University of Göttingen in Germany. There, in the early years of the 20th century, he developed one of the fundamental mathematical underpinnings of modern aerodynamics, a theory to explain the drag that occurs when air flows over the wing of an aircraft.

In the summer of 1926 there were already signs of the disaster to come for Jews in Germany when a cable reached him on vacation. It read, “what is the first boat you can take to come here? millikan.”

Millikan was Robert A. Millikan, Nobel Prize–winning physicist, president of the California Institute of Technology. That much von Kármán knew, but the rest of the message was a mystery. Ten days later a letter arrived explaining what Caltech wanted: for von Kármán to come to Pasadena to help the university set up an aeronautical laboratory. That fall he took the first of several leaves of absence from his teaching post in Germany, visits that would have an enormous impact on American aviation—and on American fortune in the war to come.

Millikan was convinced that Southern California was the place where the American aircraft industry would take off. For his part, von Kármán said, “I had always believed that the goal of my life was to eliminate the gap between scientific theory and application.”

Reluctant to cut his ties to Germany, von Kármán repeatedly turned down offers of a permanent post at Caltech until the rise of the Nazi Party settled the matter. As he sarcastically wrote to his old mentor at Göttingen in 1934, “The German academic life has some advantages, for instance a definitely better beer than here, but I think you will agree with me that this is not sufficient reason for me to neglect the dis advantages.” Later that year, the Nazi government contacted him with a proposal that he return to become a consultant to the rapidly expanding Aviation Ministry. Von Kármán knew that the ministry’s head, Hermann Göring, reputedly said, “Who is or is not a Jew is up to me to decide.” But, von Kármán recalled, “I had a good laugh and remained in Pasadena.”

The Douglas Company, which had set up operations in Santa Monica, California, not far from Caltech, had already approached the university for help on several small projects. The design of the prototype DC-1 transport—the company’s first all-metal, low-wing airplane—posed an enormous design challenge. But it also presented a perfect opportunity for von Kármán and Millikan to demonstrate how the gap between science and practical application could be bridged. One crucial problem had cropped up almost immediately, and was as swiftly solved by von Kármán with his typical hands-on approach. Wind tunnel tests showed that as speeds increased, eddies broke from the leading edge of the wing and then struck smack on the tail, causing the entire tail unit to shake violently. Von Kármán concluded that the problem was due to the sharp angle where the wing met the fuselage, and that it could be cured by adding a small fillet to smooth the corner. “I enjoyed climbing into the ten-foot wind tunnel with a wad of putty, and imagining myself being the airplane as I tried to feel where I might be pressed by an element of air,” he later recalled. “In this way we found, as we suspected, that the air had rough going when it went past the corner between the wing and fuselage. As soon as the corner was puttied in, the air smoothed out.”

The DC-3 that followed in late 1935 from the DC-1 prototype had a cruising speed of 205 mph and a range, fully loaded, of nearly 1,000 miles. Within a few years the American aircraft industry would produce a staggering 10,000 military versions of the DC-3—the C-47. It would become the unglamorous but vital workhorse of the war, hauling supplies, towing gliders, and dropping paratroops in every theater, its brilliant practicality perfectly reflecting the genius of the man who escaped the Nazis and helped bring it to reality.


Originally published in the July 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here