War Birds – Summary

Chapter 6 of the book “Hidden Figures” describes the experiences of the Tuskegee airmen, a group of African American pilots who served during World War II. The black press followed their exploits closely, reporting on their successes and breaking records in the war effort. The pilots were passionate about their planes and flew the P-39 Airacobras, P-47 Thunderbolts, and P-51 Mustangs. The Mustang was considered the best plane in the world, and supporting its performance was a group of “Colored Computers” at Langley, which was a powerful offensive weapon in the United States’ war effort.


The daily work of the West Computers and the rest of the laboratory employees was sensitive, confidential, or secret, and employees were cautioned to keep mum even at the family dinner table. Langley laboratory in Hampton, Virginia was a hub of activity for the world’s top aerodynamicists, attracting visitors like Amelia Earhart, Orville Wright, Charles Lindbergh, and Howard Hughes. Locals were often confused and put off by the peculiar ways of the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) employees, whom they dubbed “brain busters” and “weirdos.” However, the NACA’s research was at the forefront of transforming the economy and transportation, making an entry-level position at the laboratory the best engineering graduate school in the world. To prepare new employees for the work at Langley, the laboratory offered a crash course in engineering physics for new computers. The first courses in the program taught the basics of aerodynamics and the science of lift, with the goal of answering the question of what makes things fly.


Langley Research Center conducted extensive wind tunnel research to improve airplane design during World War II, using tunnels with names like the Variable-Density Tunnel and the Two-Foot Smoke-Flow Tunnel. The Full-Scale Tunnel was large enough to test full-sized planes, and the Reynolds number was a key concept for measuring wind tunnel performance. Langley’s Flight Research Division worked with test pilots to capture data from planes in free flight and quantify their performance against a checklist. The research done at Langley contributed to the evolution of airplane design, with refinements made in wind tunnels leading to the development of planes like the P-51D Mustang. All American military airplanes in production during the war were based on the research results and recommendations of the NACA.


The engineers at NACA measured and processed large amounts of data from wind tunnel and flight tests using various instruments. The female computers, including Dorothy Vaughan, played a crucial role in processing this data and converting it into usable information. Despite being referred to as “girl computers” and receiving little recognition, their work was essential to the success of the NACA’s projects, including the development of the B-29 Superfortress bomber. Dorothy’s work contributed to the devastation brought on by the atomic bombs dropped over Japan, highlighting the complex relationship between war, technology, and social progress. Dorothy would continue to work for NACA until the end of the war.


Active Themes

Examples of the themes in Chapter 6 are:

Racism and Inequality:


    • The fact that the women of West Computing were segregated from the rest of the employees and had limited opportunities for advancement due to their race and gender.

    • The comment made in Air Scoop that suggested that mistakes made by female computers were to be expected because of their gender.



    • The sense of camaraderie and mutual support among the women of West Computing, who often shared knowledge and tips to help each other with their work.

    • The recognition given by Henry Reid to all the different employees at Langley who contributed to the success of the bombing of Japan, regardless of their job title or position.

Luck, Persistent Action, and Hard Work:


    • Dorothy Vaughan’s decision to persist in learning new mathematical concepts and techniques, despite the challenges and setbacks she faced as a black woman in a predominantly white and male field.

    • The hard work and ingenuity of the engineers who invented new instruments and techniques to measure the performance of aircraft in wind tunnels and in free flight, even when the equipment they needed did not exist.

Scientific Progress vs. Social and Political Progress:


    • The fact that the achievements of the NACA and its employees in advancing the science of aeronautics were not always recognized or appreciated by society at large, and only gained attention when they had a practical application in military or commercial aviation.

  • The contrast between the NACA’s scientific progress and the social and political context in which it was achieved, including the segregation and discrimination faced by the women of West Computing and the racial tensions of the time.


1. To whom does the phrase “tank Yanks” refer?

The phrase “tank Yanks” refers to the black GIs fighting overseas during World War II. The black press dubbed these black soldiers (Tuskegee Airmen) as “Tan Yanks,” and they were highly celebrated for their bravery and service in the war. They loved their planes and were passionate about knowing their planes’ every strength and weakness, which was crucial for their survival in the war. The Tuskegee Airmen, who belonged to the 332nd Fighter Group and were commanded by Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr., were the embodiment of the Double V and served in Bell P-39 Airacobras, Republic P-47 Thunderbolts, and North American P-51 Mustangs. The 332nd Fighter Group’s Mustangs were considered the best planes in the world by the Tuskegee airmen.


2. Why did locals think of Langley employees as “more than a little peculiar”?

The locals in the area thought of Langley employees as “more than a little peculiar.” They found their ways and accents marked them as outsiders and referred to them as “brain busters” or “NACA nuts” and “weirdos.” Langley employees often confused and horrified the residents with their behaviors, such as dismantling a toaster at the local department store or bringing a pressure gauge from the lab into a store to test the suction capabilities of a vacuum cleaner model. They also drove to work with books on their steering wheels and always thought they had a better way to do anything and didn’t hesitate to tell the locals so.


3. What is the Reynolds number? How was Dorothy able to learn about it? How does the Reynolds number help work at Langley?

The Reynolds number is a mathematical concept used to measure how closely the performance of a wind tunnel mimics actual flight. Dorothy learned about it while working as a computer at Langley. The Reynolds number helps work at Langley by allowing engineers to build wind tunnels that simulate real-world conditions and accurately measure the performance of aircraft. The quality and range of wind tunnel research data and analysis conducted at Langley was unmatched by any other organization during that time. The laboratory also had the best flight research engineers, who worked closely with test pilots to capture data from planes in free flight. The data obtained from wind tunnel research and free flight tests were used to improve the design and performance of military aircraft during World War II.


4. How do you think Langley employees reconcile the difference between the work they do that is innovative and advances humankind with the work they do that destroys it?

The chapter suggests that Langley employees reconcile the difference between the innovative work they do and the work that destroys by acknowledging their contribution to both outcomes. When an achievement was so important that it made the popular press, such as the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, everyone got to take a victory lap. The XB-29 model had logged more than a hundred hours in the laboratory’s Eight-Foot High-Speed Tunnel, and Henry Reid, the director of Langley, thanked all employees for their contribution to the final bombing of Japan. This included engineers, mechanics, model makers, computers, secretaries, janitors, and maids. The work of the mathematicians, including Dorothy Vaughan, was making a difference in the outcome of the war.

The devastation caused by the bombing of Japan was also acknowledged as a part of their work. The chapter suggests that Langley employees reconcile the difference between innovative work and destructive work by recognizing their contribution to both and focusing on the overall impact of their work on the war effort.

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