Théodore von KármánThe von Karman Institute was established in October 1956 in the buildings which formed what then was the aeronautical laboratory of the Civil Aviation Authority (Administration de l'Aéronautique) of the Belgian Ministry of Communications.

The history of the laboratory goes back to 1922 when, on farmland purchased by the Belgian Government, the first building was erected to house the STAé (Service Technique de l'Aéronautique), i.e. the technical services of the Civil Aviation Authority then under the Ministry of Defence. The building was designed to accommodate a large low speed wind tunnel of the Eiffel type with an open return circuit and open-jet test section of 2 m diameter, as well as offices and shops. It still exists and has been refurbished internally after removal of the low speed tunnel to make room for modern turbomachinery and high speed facilities. A second building was added in 1935 to house offices and laboratories. It is now the Institute's administrative building. The last addition was made after the war, in 1949, with the construction of a large building specially designed to house a supersonic tunnel and a multi-configuration low speed facility.

During the pre-war years, the civil aviation technical services based in Sint-Genesius-Rode was responsible for the certification, testing and inspection of aircraft or aircraft components and equipment as well as for the aeronautical ground facilities. Belgium was engaged in aircraft design and construction at that time and the low speed wind tunnel was used for the aerodynamic testing of aircraft models or components. It was also used occasionally for non- aeronautical studies. What stands out as the most important and original contribution to aeronautics in the period between 1930 and 1940 is the pioneering work on helicopters carried out at the laboratory under the leadership of Nicolas Florine. Florine was an outstanding scientist who brought to a successful conclusion the design of the first tandem rotor helicopter using co-rotating rotors. This work involved theoretical studies, model testing in the wind tunnel and in free flight, construction of three prototypes and full scale flight; it culminated in October 1933 with the unofficial world flight duration record for helicopters of 9 minutes 58 seconds. See below the video of 1933.


Florine III
Theodore von Karman inside the "Florine III" tandem rotor helicopter conceived (by Nicolas Florine in 1935) at the place where now stands his institute
After the last war, the Belgian Government decided to modernize the aerodynamic testing facilities at Sint-Genesius-Rode on the recommendation of Professor Emile Allard. Since that part of the technical services dealing with aircraft inspection, certification and airworthiness had been moved close to Brussels Airport, there only remained at the location of Sint- Genesius-Rode the aerodynamics laboratory which was jointly operated by the Civil Aviation Authority (Administration de l'Aeronautique) and the national aeronautical research centre, CNERA.

This centre was created by the FNRS (the National Scientific Research Foundation), with the concurrence of the Civil Aviation Authority, to supplement the existing team of civil servants operating the laboratory with scientific personnel who would collaborate in the research programmes. In fact, the main tasks at the beginning were to calibrate the newly acquired low speed and supersonic facilities.

In the course of 1955, Theodore von Karman, who was chairman of the Advisory Group for Aeronautical Research and Development (AGARD) of NATO, proposed with his assistants, Frank Wattendorf and Rolland Willaume, the establishment of an institution devoted to training and research in aerodynamics which would be open to young engineers and scientists of the NATO nations. It was strongly felt that this form of international undertaking would fulfill the important objective of fostering fruitful exchanges and understanding between the participating nations in a well-defined technical field. With the full backing of the Belgian national delegates to AGARD, Dr. M. Freson and Professor F. Haus, the Belgian Government agreed to host the projected new centre in its aeronautical laboratory in Sint- Genesius-Rode. A study group was then set up under the auspices of AGARD to determine the possibilities of establishing the centre at Sint-Genesius-Rode and, bearing in mind the existing facilities, to recommend a teaching programme appropriate to the objective pursued. The group appointed by AGARD consisted of Professors F. Haus, L. Malavard, A.D. Young and C. Zwikker. The coordination was ensured by R. Willaume and F. Wattendorf of AGARD.


In parallel to the scientific mission of the study group, negotiations were undertaken between the governments of the USA and Belgium to obtain a rapid solution to the administrative and financial questions raised by the support and operation of the centre.

The result was a formal agreement between the two governments, reached in Belgium in September 1956 and signed officially in Paris on December 15, 1956 by General J.B. Larkin for the U.S. Government and the Belgian Ambassador to Paris for the Belgian Government.

NATOIt is interesting to recall what had been recommended by the AGARD Study Group of 1955 in terms of training and research : ``the Institute should aim toward a training which, apart from its direct and obvious ties with aeronautical industries, would be of value in wider areas such as industrial or scientific research where the application of experimental techniques of aerodynamics would be profitable''.

The group also ``felt it desirable that certain research programs be carried out at the Institute and in that perspective to encourage good students to prolong their stay at the Institute for another year to devote themselves to research''.

Later the support of the Institute was shared, with different contributions, between a larger number of NATO countries and as one would expect for an institution depending upon fifteen nations for its support, difficulties and problems have, in the course of its 59 years of existence, occasionally arisen. They have always been surmounted thanks to the goodwill and understanding of the participating nations who recognized the important role assumed by the Institute in specialized training and in scientific cooperation.

Theodore von Karman acted as the Institute's Chairman until his death in 1963. It was then that the name of the organization was changed in memory of its founder.

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