It's hard to believe that by 1946, Virginia Tucker had already been the NACA's most influential female employee for more than a decade. As the first Head Computer at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, she presided over the wartime expansion of the laboratory's professional female staff and helped build a computing and data reduction organization that would see the NACA through from the early days of aeronautics to the Space Age.
North Carolina born and raised, Virginia "Ginna" Tucker attended the North Carolina College for Women, in Greensboro, NC (now the University of North Carolina Greensboro) When she wasn't busy studying for her degree in mathematics, she served as the student fire chief. She graduated in 1930, and, like so many educated women of the era, found a job as a teacher. In 1935, an application she'd filed with the Civil Service attracted the attention of the engineers at the Langley laboratory, which was seeking women for an experiment: a female computing pool, modeled on stenographic pools, which would more efficiently process the growing amount of data issuing from flight research and experiments in the lab's wind tunnels.
It would be an understatement to say that the computing pool was a success: from five women in 1935, Langley's computing organization grew to hundreds of women by the end of World War II, with Virginia Tucker overseeing the operation. ("How many girls do you need?" the head of recruiting at her alma mater asked Virginia Tucker during the war. "As many as you can send," she replied). She directly managed the East Computing group, the central pool of white women located first in the Administration Building, then in the 19-ft Pressure Tunnel, and oversaw the head computers of other groups, including those located in individual wind tunnels, and the all-black West Area Computers (see Dorothy Vaughan).
Virginia Tucker worked closely with Langley's Personnel Director Melvin Butler and engineers such as Eldridge Derring to recruit and train talented women, and establish computing standards used not only at Langley, but at newer NACA centers in Ohio (the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory, later Lewis, now Glenn) and California (originally the Muroc Flight Test Unit, later Dryden, now Armstrong). She left Langley in late 1946, as the center was making the transition from the drag-cleanup testing of World War II to the supersonic research of the Cold War. At the time, there were no female engineers: Pearl Young (the NACA's first and only female engineer until Kitty O'Brien Joyner was promoted in the 1950s) left her engineering position in the 1930s to take on the role as the center's Technical Editor. And no female supervisors were given responsibility for managing male employees. Whether Virginia Tucker left because she hit the glass ceiling, or because she simply needed a change of pace, an offer of a position as an engineer at the (then) aeronautical startup Northrop Corporation enticed her to relocate from Virginia to California.
Virginia Tucker worked at Northrop for seventeen years. She returned to North Carolina and worked until her retirement in 1974 as a supervisor in a local school system. Throughout her life, Virginia Tucker was both a model of and advocate for women in STEM fields.