Charles H. Zimmerman

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[top] Background

Charles Zimmerman worked at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in the 1930s on a variety of research topics, including loads, airfoils, and aircraft stability and design. During this time, he was also thinking about much more novel aspects of flight, especially how stability might be maintained. He theorized that the natural balancing reflexes of a person could be adequate to control very small flight vehicles, a concept he called "kinesthetic control". He was also interested in aspects that could lead to Vertical/Short Takeoff and Landing aircraft.

Zimmerman with 5-Foot Vertical Wind Tunnel
Charles H. Zimmerman designed the 5-Foot Vertical Wind Tunnel, completed in December 1929. The tunnel was built to study spinning characteristics of aircraft. It was an open throat tunnel capable of a maximum speed of 80 mph. In NACA TR 387 (p. 499), Carl Wenzinger and Thomas Harris report that "the tunnel passages are constructed of 1/8-inch sheet iron, stiffened with angle iron and bolted together at the corners. The over-all dimensions are: Height 31 feet 2 inches; length, 20 feet 3 inches; width, 10 feet 3 inches.

British researchers conceived the idea of a vertical wind tunnel to permit free-spinning tests of aircraft models. Following initial trials with a small model of the free-spinning tunnel, the RAE constructed a 15-ft full-scale version of the tunnel and proceeded to conduct fundamental research on spinning and spin recovery. In turn, researchers and management at NACA-Langley had followed the developments in England and proceeded to design and construct a similar 15-ft Free Spinning Tunnel in 1934 under the direction of Zimmerman.

After successfully advocating for, designing, and initiating operations of the 15-foot vertical spin tunnel, Charles H. Zimmerman conceived and successfully developed another unique wind-tunnel apparatus to study the dynamic stability and control characteristics of an aircraft model in a free-flying condition. A 5-foot-diameter “proof-of-concept” wind tunnel was constructed. Initial testing in the 5-Foot Free-Flight Tunnel started in 1937 with very encouraging results. Zimmerman’s team quickly designed and developed a larger free-flight capability with an octagonal test section in 1939, now known as the Langley 12-Foot Low Speed Tunnel.

[top] Awards

Wright Brothers Medal, 1956

Dr. Alexander Klemin Award, 1956 from the American Helicopter Society

[top] Obituary

Charles Zimmerman, 88, Dies; Designer of Innovative Aircraft By WOLFGANG SAXON, Published: May 12, 1996, NY Times

Charles H. Zimmerman, an aircraft engineer who pioneered experimental flying machines and played a role in lofting the United States' first astronauts into orbit, died last Sunday in Sentara Hampton General Hospital in Hampton, Va. A Hampton resident, he was 88.

Mr. Zimmerman spent most of his career in Hampton at the Langley Research Center of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. He joined the staff in 1929 upon graduating from the University of Kansas with a degree in electrical engineering. He received a master's in aeronautical engineering from the University of Virginia in 1954.

As chief of the Stability and Control Section in the 1930's, he soon became a tinkerer in the field of revolutionary aircraft design that ran the gamut of their creators' imagination. He contributed to wind-tunnel development to evaluate the spinning motions of aircraft; he analyzed them so that the craft might recover and return to even flight.

His work with aircraft stability led him to invent an early version of a vertical short take-off and landing airplane. Another invention was a "flying platform," a slow-moving craft shaped like a pancake on which the pilot would stand upright and steer by leaning his body like a skier.

He developed what became known as the Zimmer Skimmer, formally named the V-173 Flying Wing. Built for the Navy, the odd-looking contraption showed such remarkable flight behavior at low speed that Charles A. Lindbergh joined the test pilots.

In 1953, at the dawn of the space age, Mr. Zimmerman joined a three-member study group that called on the country to go forward with research for space flight. After heading a Space Task Force in 1958, he became a division chief for Project Mercury, in charge of logistics. He was named director of aeronautics at NASA headquarters in 1962 and retired in 1967.

Mr. Zimmerman is survived by his wife of 64 years, Beatrice; a son, Charles H. Jr., of Hampton; two brothers, Roy S. and Raymond J., both residents of Kansas; four grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

[top] Photos

[top] V-173 Model Testing in Building 643


1941-11-28 Zimmerman V-1731941-11-28 Zimmerman V-1731941-11-28 Zimmerman V-173More

[top] V-173 Model #4 Testing in Building 644

Control in this model was obtained on the original model by means of two hinged trailing edge sections of the wing which could be operated together as elevators or oppositely as ailerons, and directional control was provided by the twin rudders.


[top] V-173 Model Testing in Building 644


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YouTube Video

[top] V-173 Model Testing in Building 645

Project #67 in 1941.

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[top] XF5U

The Vought XF5U was a larger version of the original V-173. The project was cancelled in 1947 and the lone prototype transferred to the Smithsonian Institute.

XF5U-1 Project #126 in building 645 in 1945.

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[top] Models

Three models of the Vought V-173 are retained by LaRC as historic artifacts. Two are actual models flown in the wind tunnels. They have suffered damage over the years are were repaired by model maker Benjamin 'Andy' Goddin in 2015. The repairs were thoroughly photo documented. All three models are now part of the LaRC Exhibits Collection.

Large balsa model with movable flaps and interchangeable propellersSmaller model with folding tailMore

[top] Interviews

Zimmerman, Charles, March 30, 1973

Zimmerman, Charles, August 1, 1990

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