NASA Headquarters NACA
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Sandra Johnson
News, Virginia –
2 April 2014
Johnson: Today is April 2, 2014. This oral history session is being
conducted with Eleanor “Jerry” Jaehnig at her home in
Newport News, Virginia, as part of the NACA Oral History Project sponsored
by the NASA Headquarters History Office. The interviewer is Sandra
Johnson, assisted by Rebecca Wright. I want to thank you again for
agreeing to talk to us today and allowing us in your home. We really
appreciate it. I want to start today by talking to you a little bit
about your background before the NACA, where you went to school, and
when you first heard of the NACA and decided to try to come to work
I went to Winthrop University [Rock Hill, South Carolina]. It’s
Winthrop University now. It was just Winthrop College, and it was
a girls’ school. Now, it’s co-ed. I went there because
my older sister went there, and I had a couple of relatives that went
there. In fact, the governor’s wife went there. It was well-known
as a good school. I majored in math. I wanted to major in music, but
my older sister said, “You cannot major in music. You will have
a hard time making a living if you’re in music. Major in math,
and take your music on the side.”
So, I took her advice. I don’t know whether it was a good thing
to do, because my heart was in the music, but it’s a good avocation,
anyway. So, I majored in math. My family could not afford to send
me to school and give me music lessons on the side. My school offered
a contest—a music contest. The only thing you had to do, if
you won, was promise that you would play in the orchestra. I didn’t
play an instrument, but I won the contest. I got the first prize,
so I picked the cello. I got two lessons every week for the four years
that I was in college, so I got my music, but I majored in math. I
love it. I just love math. I’m going crazy about it all the
time. Numbers are my thing. I just do everything that has numbers
in it—the newspaper or anything. If there are numbers, I’ve
got to have it. That’s what I’ve done. I majored in math.
The way I found my job here—they had a scout out in our school.
They were going to all of the universities. They came to my school,
and they interviewed all of the math majors. They interviewed me and
hired me right then. Even before I graduated, I had a job at NACA.
I had quite a few harrowing experiences getting here, though.
What were those? How did you get here?
I came on the train. There were four of us that majored in math, and
they hired all four of us. We came on the train.
When we got here, we had a reservation in Hampton [Virginia], in the
Hampton Hotel. We had a friend that was meeting us. When we got to
the hotel, they had already given our room to somebody else, so we
didn’t have a room. They put us in a big, big, old, colonial
home. I think it was something like four stories high. The only room
they had was on the top floor. There were windows on all four sides,
and none of them had screens on them. It was hot as Hades, so we had
to have the windows open.
I was so homesick. The pigeons would fly in one window and fly across
the room and out the other. We were all in the one room, and we took
turns swatting the pigeons out of the windows. I had the worst headache
I’ve had in my whole life, and I wanted to go home so badly.
My mother had bought me all of these pretty, new clothes to wear.
One of the girls’ luggage got lost, I loaned her my clothes,
so she wore my new clothes before I did.
How long were you in that room?
About a week. Then, we finally got a newspaper, looked at “for
rent” ads and we got on a bus and went to where the Chesapeake
Boulevard is. It’s on the river between Newport News and Norfolk.
So, this room that was for rent—it was right on the boulevard,
right on the water—a beautiful place. We couldn’t find
it, so we stopped at this big, colonial home there. This elderly man
answered the door. I said he was elderly. He was probably in his sixties.
When he went out on the porch and showed us where to go to where this
house was, he said, “Now, if you don’t like that place,
come back, and I’ll see if I can help you.”
We walked around the block and went back and said, “We didn’t
like that place.”
He said, “Well, come in and we’ll have a talk.”
His daughter had just died. She was in her twenties. She was married
to the ambassador of France, and she died in childbirth. So, they
had a void that they had to fill. We had a big void that we needed
to fill, and so they just took us in, like we were their children.
It was just like moving into a home. It was just wonderful. Everybody
was so good to us. Oh my goodness! He’d put candy bars on the
floor outside our door every night so that we’d have something
to take to work with us. It was just wonderful.
There was a boardinghouse just a few doors down the street, so we
took all of our meals there. We had it made, but we had to ride the
bus to the field—to Langley Field [Langley Research Center].
Unfortunately, I drew the graveyard shift, and so I had to go home
on a bus at twelve o’clock at night by myself. Well, Woo [Cloyce
E.] Matheny—that’s the name of one of the engineers in
the 19-foot tunnel—often rode the bus with me. That’s
where I was assigned in a 19-foot [Central Computer Pool] as a computer
Now, that was back in the days when we didn’t have electric
computers or calculators. I used the slide rule. It was this long,
and this wide, and it had every function on it that you could possibly
have. Well, I had to learn to use that, but that’s where I did
all of my calculations on that slide rule. I had a lot to learn there,
because I was not taught to do that in school. I definitely did not
know how to use it, but my husband did everything on a slide rule.
So, he helped me a lot. That’s what I did, and I was really
very fortunate because I was given a lot of jobs that a lot of girls
didn’t get to have. I really learned a lot of things that, otherwise,
I would not have.
This was in 1943. Is that when you started?
Yes, 1943. I worked for two years. I left in ’45 and got married.
In those two years, I learned a lot. In fact, Richard [V.] Rhode—I
don’t know whether you know who he is—he was the section
head. Actually, the whole Aircraft Loads Division was under him. He
finally went to Washington [DC]. Then Phil [Philip] Donely became
my section head. He was very good to me. He gave me a lot of good
jobs and so forth—interesting jobs. Do you know what the V-G
You mentioned that on the phone, so I was going to get you to explain
that and tell me what you did with that.
A V-G recorder measures gravity and speed. The two are related quite
a bit. That’s what Phil Donely gave me. I was in charge of that.
What I had to do—they put it on the P-40 [Warhawk “single-seat”
fighter] plane. That’s what the V-G recorder was put on. I would
have to crawl up in the cockpit. Of course, that was in the days before
girls wore slacks. The plane had to be running. You had to smoke a
little glass and put it in, and that would give you a basic curve.
You measured everything from that one curve. The motor had to be running
on the plane when you did that. It would scratch a little line. That
would be the zero [basic] curve, because you weren’t going anywhere.
The pilots were lined up on the side. Oh, gracious! When they turned
that motor on, you can guess what happened. I was pretty embarrassed.
My dress went straight up over my head.
They were lined up, probably knowing what was going to happen.
They knew what was going to happen. They knew every bit of what was
going to happen. I got even with them later.
I definitely want to hear that!
Then, I would have to go back in the plane, take the glass out, plot
the curve, and work out the equations. That was a very, very good
opportunity for me, which I enjoyed. I just loved doing that. I did
that for almost two years. [Figures 2 and 2(a)]
Were there other women that were up in the planes putting things in
them, or were you the only one?
I was the only one.
That was quite an accomplishment for that time.
Yes, it was very unusual, but Phil Donely—he was determined
that he was going to make an engineer out of me. He was so disappointed
when I got married. That was okay, too, but he was always very good
to me. I worked the graveyard shift a lot, and that meant I had to
get on the bus at midnight and ride the bus about—oh, gracious—it
seemed like at least 40 miles to where I lived, even though it was
more like 7 miles. Woo Matheny lived about two blocks from where I
lived. That rascal—he got on the bus with me and got off the
bus with me, walked me to my door, told me goodnight, and he walked
That was nice of him.
He did that because he did not want me to be walking at midnight by
myself. So, you see—the Lord took care of me. I felt very blessed.
I really did feel blessed. That’s most of my career in [NACA].
I worked with the V-G recorder. They did also put me in one of the
tanks [Langley Tow Tanks] one time for a short time. We had a couple
of tanks where they did experiments on the water. The tanks were full
of water. You probably never heard of that, but we did have a couple
of those. I did a little bit of stuff, but I don’t really remember
exactly what I did on them. I do remember going into the tank and
taking data at that time. [Figure 3]
That’s interesting. I didn’t realize they did that at
I can see it right now. It was close to the full-scale tunnel. Another
thing that I had that I thought was so beneficial to me—I got
acquainted with a lot of the test pilots, therefore, that opened up
avenues for me to learn a lot about what they were doing.
I remember Don [Donald E.] Hewes. I don’t know whether you’ve
heard of Don. Don is the one that invented the apparatus that taught
the people that went to the Moon to walk on the Moon [Reduced Gravity
Simulator]. The gravity, of course, is different. Don was an engineer,
he was a private pilot and a very good friend of mine, so therefore,
I got to know him pretty well and what he was doing, too. He was the
one who invented that apparatus.
Was it like a simulator?
Yes. It was on the West Area of the field, but there was a big, big
space. The test pilots were the people that used it. They put a harness
around them so that the gravity was different, so therefore, they
simulated the conditions that it would be on the Moon. Don is the
one who invented it—he was lying on the sofa, he said, when
he thought of it.
You never know where that’s going to hit.
You never know what’s coming through his head, too. I knew Don
very well. He was a singer, too.
Yes, we sang a lot together, so I knew him a lot. His wife was one
of my best friends. She just died about a year ago. Don built his
own plane and put a Volkswagen engine in it. They flew that plane
all over the country. It’s amazing. They found him lying under
that plane [at Patrick Henry Airport], dead [he had a heart attack].
That’s how he died—where he wanted to be.
Doing what he wanted to do, I’m sure.
You’ve just about got my whole story.
You were fresh out of college and relatively young. What did your
family think when you were going to get on this train and come all
of the way to Hampton by yourself? Well, you had other people, but
young girls travelling and then not really knowing what you were coming
Well, you know, my daddy was a pharmacist. He had two drugstores.
It was a tough life, because it was back in the days—it was
during the Depression, and so, therefore, they were happy I had a
job. That’s the honest truth. They were just happy that I had
a job and that I could support myself. In those days, we didn’t
have to worry about our safety. You didn’t. I never felt threatened
or anything—never. Therefore, I felt that I was perfectly safe
everywhere I went. It never occurred to me that I could have been
in any danger.
I had a job that paid well and that was interesting. I was never bored.
I was fortunate that I had people that were over me that gave me credit
for having some sense.
Even today, women have problems with that.
Never—in that division, we were always given the greatest respect.
They gave us jobs that really gave us some credit. They really did.
I felt very, very fortunate that way.
Do you remember what your salary was when you first started?
I can remember the first one. It was 60 dollars a month.
Oh my goodness! You were excited, weren’t you?
That was a lot of money!
When you first came here, coming from South Carolina and then coming
to this area but arriving at Langley, and the wind tunnels and that
sort of thing, what were your first impressions of what you had walked
I was probably pretty much awestruck, overwhelmed quite a bit, and
I would go to this huge tunnel—the 16-foot [16-foot High Speed
Tunnel]. The 19-foot was in the East Area. This one was over on the
West Area. Anyway, I went inside of that thing and looked at the propeller.
I was amazed. That thing was big. I had no idea it was that big. Boy,
when they put the air going through that thing, it was a lot of air.
So, you were there from ’43 to ’45? You met your husband
What was he doing?
He was an engineer. He was a civil engineer and some of his work involved
wind tunnel design. He was also a project engineer for the Jefferson
Lab [Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility]. You know what
the Jefferson Lab is. That’s here, but the universities took
it over. He was in charge of that construction when they were building
it. That job just about finished him off. He was really worn out when
that thing was finished, but he travelled all over. There were two
other cyclotrons in this country. One was in California, and one was
in the Midwest. I can’t remember where, though, but he had to
visit them quite a bit.
He was gone a lot. He just practically lived over there at the construction
site. Then, when the universities took it over, he got out of the
picture altogether. He was head of the whole project, which was a
big, big job. He was a smart man. You would never know it, though,
because he never flaunted it. He was a very quiet type of person,
but he knew what was going on all of the time. I think he helped me
a lot with that dadgum slide rule.
I can remember we [women computers] did not have a calculator. We
finally got a Monroe, which did adding and subtracting. Then, finally,
we got a Friden, and that did multiplication and division and did
the square roots and all that kind of stuff. We were fighting over
those things. [Figure 4]
How many other mathematicians or computers worked in your area where
The 19-foot was the Central Computer Pool [Figure 1]. That’s
really what it was. I would say—oh, golly—10 or 15 altogether
in the whole office. We were given different jobs to work on. We shared
a desk with somebody else. We didn’t have our own desk. There
were two people to a desk. I can remember the one that had shared
mine. Oh, boy, was he a dilly!
Was he a mathematician also?
No. He was not really well-educated. He did equations, but he was
not an engineer.
So, there were some men that were doing the same type of job that
you were doing?
Yes. There were very few girls at NACA.
When you started?
Yes. Usually, back in those days, everybody went into the computer
pool first, and then you were fed out into different sections after
you had your basic training. I stayed in the 19-foot for a very short
time. Then, Phil Donely took me over. He did a lot for me. He really
gave me a lot of responsible jobs.
Were you the only mathematician, at that time, working for him?
I think, probably so, but I don’t remember exactly. There were
not very many girls in there. There were some. We have a couple of
computers living here—Dot Coleman. She lived on my street. Now,
Dot’s health is not good. She went there the same time I did.
We both lived on Kecoughtan Road at one time. Do you know where that
is? That’s in Hampton. They had an apartment—she and another
girl that lived together. They had an apartment on Kecoughtan Road.
I later lived in South Hampton in one of the apartments, but those
were not built when we first moved here. We just had to rent a room
from somebody. Most of it was right around the Chesapeake Boulevard,
in that area. We all had to ride buses to and from work to the Langley
Field. That seemed like a long ride—believe me—a long
one, especially if you’re doing it at midnight. We did take
our turns at the midnight shift. We had several shifts. I pulled my
share of the midnight shift, but I didn’t mind it. I liked the
shift, because it was quiet, and you got your work done. That was
fine. I didn’t mind that at all.
You said you got even with those pilots. I was just wondering if you
would tell us how you got even with them—the ones that were
That was a pilot that I got even with. He rode a motorcycle. He asked
me to ride the motorcycle with him. It was a cold day. I’ll
never forget it. I didn’t have any gloves, I didn’t have
a hat or scarf or anything. I was sitting on the back of that motorcycle,
and we were going out to[the air field. I was so cold, so I got somebody
to take me home in their car, and he got so mad at me. I’ll
never forget that.
That’s quite a story.
Jack [John P.] Reeder was a test pilot. I knew him. I taught all of
his children in school. I got situated not working at NACA anymore,
and I taught school. I loved teaching school. I adored it. I could
do it all over again if they’d have me. That was my thing. I
taught math, music, and art.
What a combination!
Yes, it was wonderful.
How many years did you teach?
Almost 20, and I loved every minute. I absolutely adored it. I was
made to teach. I was. I think my experience of working in the field
like I did made a big difference, because I taught a lot of children
that wanted to go into that field. They didn’t get any encouragement
from anybody, but they got it from me. I think that helped a whole
lot, because I had experienced it, and they could see how much I loved
it, and I loved teaching. I just adored teaching, because I like children.
I taught in the neighborhood school, so no busing. [Many] walked to
school. They would go home after school, change their clothes, and
come back to school. They would come back in my room, and they would
say, “Mrs. Jaehnig, will you come out and play with us?”
I said, “Of course. What do you want to play?” So, I’d
go out on the playground and play with them. It was wonderful.
What grades did you teach?
Six and seven—the hardest ones. It’s the hardest age,
but I adored it. I adored it. I could handle them. I could give them
a dose of their own medicine. I did not have a single discipline problem.
I really didn’t. I just loved every minute of it. Just every
minute of it—I loved it. I’d go back tomorrow if they’d
When you first got to Langley, were there a lot of social activities?
It was during the war, so was everyone just concentrating on the work,
or did they also have the social activities?
No, they had parties. There was a lot of drinking, which I didn’t
get involved in. There was a lot of drinking and all that kind of
stuff. These people were just out of school, and they were really
spreading their wings. That didn’t make me happy. That didn’t
make me happy at all. I wasn’t that type of person. There was
a lot of drinking and all that, but I never got involved in all that,
but it was there.
How did you meet your husband?
He lived in the apartment next door to me. He was the only one that
had a car, so we all went for him. He inherited a car from his grandfather.
It was a Studebaker. It was a nice car, too. He did a lot of hauling
around of people. He was very popular.
I imagine, during that time, because it was hard to get a car during
It was. We had that Studebaker for a long time after we were married.
Having a car was really something.
That was an interesting time. Rebecca, do you have any questions?
You mentioned earlier when we were chatting that he went to war as
He joined the service [U.S. Public Health Service – “declared
to be a military service and a branch of the land and naval forces
of the United States” during WWII].
Yes. He knew that he was going to be drafted. That was when they had
the draft. He knew that his name was going to come up soon, so he
went ahead and joined.
Did you work while he was gone, or were you home?
I quit working when I got married, because I didn’t have a job,
and he was stationed in Mississippi. They were so backward. Oh, golly!
I had a job in Mississippi, but it was nothing to do with aeronautics.
I had a job as a classification agent for a cotton bale company. That
was the only job you could have. We didn’t have mayonnaise.
We didn’t have any shoes. They were all rationed. All of the
shoes were made out of cardboard. We couldn’t get salad dressing.
We couldn’t get butter. We couldn’t get anything like
that, because they were using all of the grease for ammunition, so
therefore, we did without a lot of stuff. That didn’t make any
difference to us. We didn’t care. He joined the Public Health
Service, even though he was not that trained. He did research work
for malaria fever. That’s what he was put in.
He was a civil engineer, doing research work on malaria. How interesting!
He got malaria. He did. Yes, he caught malaria. I never will forget
it. I thought he’d never get well, but he got it from fooling
around with doing experiments with mosquitoes. That’s what they
put him on. That’s the way that the government does though.
I guess so.
He stayed just long enough after the war was over, he got out. His
former professor offered him a job teaching at the University of Wisconsin.
He taught surveying. That’s the way it was.
When did you come back here?
We came back here when it got so cold I couldn’t take it anymore.
You go outside, and it’s 20 [degrees] below every night. You
wash a diaper, and it freezes before you can put it on the line. It
was stiff as a board before you put it on the line. I had to walk
as far as from here to the highway to go to the bathroom, but I was
happy. I was happy. I was not unhappy a bit.
I can remember one night. We heard this sniffling in our tent. I quickly
got up. He said, “Do you have anything to eat in here?”
I said, “Yeah, I’ve got a candy bar.”
He said, “Give it to him.” It was a raccoon. So, I got
my candy bar and gave it to that dumb raccoon. We were lucky. We had
a floor in our tent, but the top was canvas, and all of these daddy
longlegs crawling everywhere. I’ll never forget them. It was
But, you made it through.
We were happy. You learned to be happy, I don’t care what your
situation is. You learned to be happy, and so it didn’t matter
to us. You’d just adjust.
You started teaching when you came back here? Is that when you started,
after you had your children?
Yes, after my children, I decided I was not going to teach until my
children were big enough to come home, and if I’m not there,
they’d be okay. They were in the fourth and eighth grades before
I started teaching. It was the right thing for me. I loved teaching.
I’d go back tomorrow if they’d have me. I really loved
Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you’d like
to talk about, or any other experiences, anecdotes, or anything you
want to share during your time there?
I’ll think of a million things tonight. I hope I haven’t
No, not at all. You’ve told us some things that are pretty interesting.
Crawling up in those planes. Did they ever take you on a plane trip?
Did you ever get to ride in one of those planes?
No. They never took me up. I guess they were afraid I’d jump
That wouldn’t have been good.
Thank you so much.
1 - Human Computers; Women at NACA and early NASA. Typical computing
Photograph from “Human Computers” - NASA Cultural Resources
Figure 2 – Excerpts from:
Advisory Committee for Aeronautics Technical Note 2194
The NACA Oil-Damped V-G Recorder, by Israel Taback (October 1950)
effect of atmospheric turbulence on the loads encountered by aircraft
in routine operational flight has for some time been studied by analyzing
the records secured with the NACA V-G (velocity-gravity) recorder.
original NACA V-G recorder in which the accelerometer unit was damped
by dry friction could give satisfactory results when damped and installed
in a proper manner. Acceptable records were secured if the accelerometer
damping unit was adjusted correctly in each particular application.
This adjustment, however, was difficult because of the requirement
that the adjustment be made in the field by relatively inexperienced
personnel and because changes in damping occurred with time and operating
instrument may be attached to any accessible rigid part of the airplane
structure at a location as free from engine vibration and as near
the center of gravity of the airplane as possible.
Remove the circular cover above the name plate by releasing the spring
hold-down lever. In order to loosen the cover plate, it maybe necessary
to insert a knife blade or screw driver under the pins in the cover
plate and to pry gently until it is free of the instrument case.
Use tongs or a pair of pliers to grip the edges of a glass record
plate and apply a thin film of lampblack to one side of the plate
by passing the glass back and forth over a small, slightly sooty oil
or candle flame. With a little practice, a uniform film of proper
density can be applied.
Place the glass in the retaining grooves on the back of the cover
plate, push in to the pin stop, and replace the cover plate in the
records should be carefully removed from the cover plate to avoid
rubbing off any of the smoke film. The record should be placed on
a slight incline and a few drops of the thin fixing lacquer supplied
with the recorder should be applied with a medicine dropper to the
upper edge of the record glass. Allow the lacquer to flow over the
smoke film and dry of its own accord. If a sufficient amount of this
lacquer is applied along the upper edge of the glass, the whole surface
will be covered uniformly. Identification of each record should be
scratched on the unused part of the smoke film.
2(a) – V-G Recorder – Front (above) Cover Removed (below)
NACA TN 2194
Figure 3 – Langley Tow Tanks
Tanks (Building 720) Test Apparatus; 1945
B-29 Ditching Test, Tow Tanks Building 720; 1946
Excerpt from: Legacy in Safety: NASA Contributions to Knowledge
in Aircraft Ditching
World War II, a major operational problem arose for the nation’s
military aircraft and the focus of research in Langley’s towing
tanks was redirected. The problem of ditching, defined as the forced
landing of a land-based airplane at sea, had become a critical issue
for aircraft in the European and Pacific theaters. Damaged and fuel-starved
aircraft were being routinely forced to ditch at sea, and many designs
lacked adequate structural design and optimized procedures for surviving
the impact of the landing. In addition to structural failure and excessive
(often fatal) loads transmitted to the aircrews, some aircraft rapidly
nosed over into a deep dive, completely submersing the crew and preventing
1943 the Army and Navy requested that Langley undertake a major study
of ditching with a view to providing procedural recommendations to
operational military units as well as to provide designers of new
military aircraft with valuable data. The resulting research effort
at Langley was extremely broad, including: structural tests to determine
the structural load limits of actual aircraft such as the Boeing B-17
Flying Fortress, the Consolidated B-24 Liberator, and the Martin B-26
Marauder; measurement of the stresses imposed on structures during
landings in calm and rough seas; and observations of aircraft behavior
during ditching as replicated by free-flight models in Tow Tank 2.
every U.S. bomber and fighter configuration was evaluated in simulated
ditching tests to determine the most desirable airplane attitude and
configuration for ditching. Major questions required answers, such
as whether to deflect wing trailing-edge flaps or extend the landing
gear, whether bomb-bay doors should be opened to partially absorb
the impact, and whether one wing tip should be allowed to hit the
water first to slew the airplane around to absorb energy.
4 – Early “Calculators” Used by Women Computers
(photographs from “The Museum of HP Calculators”)