When is Enterprise Free?

It is a currently fashionable political truism that government is always less efficient and more prone to corruption than the free market and that the “military industrial complex” is the least efficient and most corrupt of all government domains. The truth is somewhat more nuanced.

Consider the story of the X-1, the experimental rocketplane in which Chuck Yeager BellX1Flightbroke the sound barrier in 1947. During World War II, it became obvious that high speed flight posed fundamentally new challenges that directly threatened the advancement of American commercial and military aircraft design. NACA, (forerunner of NASA) a civilian government agency created to promote and advance American aeronautical development, had joined forces with the Army Air Forces Materiel Command to study a variety of aeronautical engineering problems of urgent importance to the war effort. In 1941, NACA researcher John Stack recommended building an oversrength, over-powered research aircraft for exploring flight in the unstable zone near the speed of sound. Eventually, the brass agreed, and in 1943, Bell and McDonald were invited to submit proposals (under a limited bidder program that led to much graft during the war).

Here, NACA started to part ways with the Army. NACA wanted a subsonic, jet-powered aircraft that could take off from the ground. The Army wanted a rocketplane designed to break the sound barrier. In the end, Bell was given the contract to build three experimental rocket planes, but by the time they were ready, the Army had decided to adopt the air-launch technique proposed by McDonald. Testing began in Florida, but the Army grew impatient with NACA’s conservative test schedule and with the hefty bonuses demanded by it’s civilian pilots.

With the cold war looming, the Army ordered the program moved to Muroc Army Air Field and its dry lake bed. Army test pilot Chuck Yeager was picked to fly the X-1 because he was responsible and a superlative pilot, but also because as a military flyer, he was used to taking justified risks for Army pay. Yeager’s broken ribs have become legend, and it likely came as no surprise to his superiors that he would pull such a stunt—or that he would not have, had it jeopardized the mission.

Yeager and his test engineer cooked up the idea of using the X-1’s electrically adjustable vertical stabilizer to maintain control near the speed of sound. It later turned out that George Welch, a civilian pilot working for North American Aviation, had done the same thing a week earlier during a test dive in the F-86 Sabre, but neither North American nor Bell had come up with this innovation. They both were copying features of the German ME-262 rocket fighter, courtesy of military intelligence.

So, in the end, American post war air supremacy derived neither from free market inventiveness nor from government bureaucracy, but from the wartime lessons of a vanquished enemy. The ME-262 was the product of a large military development effort commenced before the war, but ironically, the thin wings that helped make it the speed demon of the war were not entirely German. Luftwaffe engineers stumbled onto the swept wing in an attempt to balance out a heavier than expected engine, but their airfoil cross sections had been developed in America by NACA in the 1930s.

Incidentally, if you are interested in muscle cars, you have seen another innovation of the NACA/AAFMC collaboration from which American business has profited lo these 70 years: the NACA duct. This recessed, Hershey’s Kiss-shaped duct was developed to draw cooling air through the skin of an aircraft without disrupting laminar flow and increasing drag. Because it was developed by the government, hot rodders from the ’50s on have been free to use it to feed their turbo chargers and blowers without paying any license to anyone.

Power, as George Orwell warns us, may corrupt, but it matters little whether the hands that wield it steer government or company cars. Neither it seems, does this dictate to the extent some imagine, the productivity of the human mind.