Then and Now: AEDC celebrates 73 years of exploring what ‘lies on the other side of the speed of sound’

  • Published
  • By Kali Bradford
  • AEDC Public Affairs

“The scientists who work here will explore what lies on the other side of the speed of sound. This is part of our effort to make our air power the best in the world – and to keep it the best in the world.”

These were the words of President Harry S. Truman as he stood before thousands during a June 25, 1951, ceremony at Arnold Air Force Base. During the ceremony, Truman unveiled a plaque dedicating the Air Engineering Development Center as the Arnold Engineering Development Center in honor of the late General of the Air Force Henry H. “Hap” Arnold. Passing before the dedication, Arnold’s vision was influential in bringing the center to fruition.

June 25, 2024, marks the 73rd anniversary of the base’s dedication along with what is known as “Hap Arnold Day.” The day is a reminder of what was a landmark event in aviation and aeronautics. While Arnold AFB continues to move toward the future in innovation, it’s important to remember the groundwork that was laid in getting the complex where it is today.

Laying the groundwork

Prior to the June 1951 dedication, Truman was making the necessary moves to establish a ground test center at Arnold Air Force Base by signing the Unitary Wind Tunnel Plan Act in October 1949 which authorized the construction of transonic and supersonic wind tunnel facilities to enhance national defense. Also that October, he signed the Air Engineering Development Center Act of 1949. This allocated $100 million from Congress for the construction of what would later be known as the Arnold Engineering Development Center and eventually the Arnold Engineering Development Complex.

Along with Truman’s efforts, Arnold had also been working to promote the idea of a test center. After observing a plane flying without a propeller during his time overseas, the five-star general wanted to see this type of capability in the U.S. military.

Recruiting those who could make this possible, he brought on world-renowned Hungarian mathematician, engineer and physicist Dr. Theodore von Kármán. At the request of Gen. Arnold, von Kármán formed an advisory group that traveled to Germany in May 1945 where they discovered facilities, aircraft engines and rockets more advanced than the Allied nations had imagined.

Among the group was American scientist Dr. Frank Wattendorf, who after surveying the advanced German ground testing facilities, composed a report, called the Trans-Atlantic Memo. Written in June 1945, the report would become the baseline for establishing “a new Air Forces development center.”

Putting the plan in motion

Wattendorf’s report was presented to Brig. Gen. Franklin O. Carroll, who would later become the first AEDC commander. Carroll took the findings and requested a preliminary study “for the establishment of a new Army Air Force’s Applied Research and Development Center for Fluid Dynamics.” A committee was formed to complete this study, and the group released a report on Dec. 18, 1945. 

Along with Carroll’s report, von Kármán and his group that had visited Germany had also penned their own findings in a document they named Toward New Horizons. The document proposed a facility for the study and development of jet propulsion, supersonic aircraft and ballistic missiles.

Both reports recommended the use of captured German test facilities in a new installation in order to save time of facility design and construction. It was also recommended that the installation be located near large sources of water and electric power.

While Tennessee wasn’t the first location in mind, then-U.S. Sen. Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee began to promote the Volunteer State as a home for the future base. He offered to donate a former military training facility called Camp Forrest to the Air Force.

Located on the outskirts of Tullahoma, Camp Forrest was one of the largest military training facilities in the country for infantry, artillery, engineering and signal units from 1941 to 1946. The site also housed a prisoners of war camp beginning in May 1942. After the end of World War II, the camp was closed, declared surplus and dismantled in 1946.

Equipped with a large area of land for seclusion and the building of facilities, the area could also be powered by the Tennessee Valley Authority and was located near a large water source in the Elk River.

After selecting Tullahoma as the final location for the new base, Congress authorized $100 million for the construction of the Air Engineering Development Center in March 1950. Three months later, the Army Corps of Engineers began construction on a perimeter fence and access road. Work also began to dam the Elk River that would create what would become known as Woods Reservoir, which continues to provide cooling water for testing facilities.

Additionally, it was decided that the new location would be operated by a corporation under contract to the Air Force. The Arnold Research Organization, or ARO, was established on June 29, 1950, to manage and operate the center and held the contract for the first 15 months of operation.

Following the 1951 dedication, the construction of facilities and testing followed. The Engine Test Facility was completed just a year later, and its first test was a J-47 engine that would be used to power a B-47 Stratojet Bomber. The construction and completion of several other test facilities quickly followed.

Beyond the speed of sound

Today, Gen. Arnold’s mission is still as prevalent as it was over 70 years ago. Re-designated from the Arnold Engineering Development Center to Arnold Engineering Development Complex in July 2012, AEDC provides a number of developmental test and evaluation capabilities to the nation to meet the demands of the National Defense Strategy.

Located in seven states, AEDC is one of three wing-level organizations within the Air Force Test Center, which is one of six centers within the Air Force Materiel Command.