Black readers follow the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen in the press. Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr. and the 332nd Fighter Group make headlines flying fighter planes. They fly Bell P-39 Airacobras, then Republic P-47 Thunderbolts and then, by the summer of 1944, North American P-51 Mustangs.
The NACA tries to build planes that will allow them to defeat the Germans from the air, destroying the science that will hand the opposition a military advantage. Langley is one of the United States’ most powerful secret weapons. Henry Reid tells his staff to be on the lookout for spies. Famous people frequent the laboratory: Amelia Earhart, Howard Hughes, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracey, and Myrna Loy. Locals call the people who work at Langley “NACA nuts,” “weirdos,” or “brain busters.”
The Langley laboratory gains prominence among important cultural figures, indicating its status as a linchpin in the flight against the Axis forces. Scientists there tend to be regarded askance by the locals, even as their status grows on the national stage.
NACA scientists drive salesmen in department stores crazy by doing things like dismantling toasters to check their quality. But people come from all over the country to take entry-level jobs at the NACA, which offers better training and hands-on experience than the best engineering graduate school program in the world. White boys from MIT and Virginia Tech fight to enter the place where Dorothy has already won a spot.
Though Langley scientists stand out among the Hampton locals, the NACA is a source of pride for the community, and it draws scientists from the country’s top educational institutions. This makes it all the more extraordinary that Dorothy and other black computers have made a place for themselves there.
The lab sponsors engineering physics classes for new computers. Two days a week after work, Dorothy and the other new computers take immersion classes in the fundamental theory of aerodynamics. They also attend a weekly two-hour laboratory session for hands-on training in one of the wind tunnels. Dorothy goes from being a teacher at the head of the classroom to a student. She learns about aerodynamics and what makes planes fly.
Dorothy’s trajectory from working as a school teacher to tackling the cutting edge of aerospace technology represents both a huge achievement and a major change. She has to start over as a student and learn about new concepts and ideas if she wants to succeed in her new role.
In the early days of flight, aeronautics evolved quickly. Dorothy, like most people at that time, has never even flown on a plane, so she has a lot to learn. The wind tunnel offers an opportunity to research flight without the danger of death. Engineers blast air over planes or parts of planes, observing how they interact with the air flow. Other tools include the Variable-Density Tunnel, the Free-Flight Tunnel, the Two-Foot Smoke-Flow Tunnel, the Eleven-Inch High-Speed Tunnel and the Sixteen-Foot High-Speed Tunnel. Engineers quantify the performance of planes against a nine-page checklist of features.
Every aspect of the work done at Langley is held to the highest standard and run on the most advanced equipment. Therefore, Langley symbolizes the frontier of American industry and intelligence. The resources, volume and elite nature of the research being done there represent a huge leap forward for Dorothy and others.
Dorothy learns that fighter planes are complicated tools that can be deployed in many different situations on the battlefield. The testing of the planes results in reams of numbers and measurements, which Margerey passes on to Dorothy and other West Computers to process. Sometimes, all Dorothy sees as a result of this testing are columns of equations. Dorothy and the others do the calculations, and then they’re sent back to the engineers, which means the engineers get credit for the work that the computers do—though the computers are, of course, given full credit if they make a mistake.
Just because Dorothy is smart enough to get a spot at Langley doesn’t mean her work will afford her the respect she deserves: Dorothy’s progress at Langley is undermined both because she is African-American and because she is a woman. Male engineers communicate with her through her white supervisor, then take credit for the work that she does when she does it correctly. Langley is famous, but Dorothy’s work there is not glamorous and sometimes it can even be tedious and unrewarding.
Either way, Dorothy’s apprentice work as a mathematician is making a difference in the war effort. She also has a part in enabling the U.S. military to carry the heavy bomb loads that the B-29s drop over Japan.
Shetterly makes the point here that the work Dorothy is doing has a direct impact on the nation’s history, for better or for worse. The air raids on Japan resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians and, at the same time, helped to bring about an end to WWII.