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WW2 demonstrated the importance of air superiority even before the phrase had been invented. Everyone knew that the advantage was gained through speed, so even before the war had ended the US Army Air Force had placed a contract with Bell to build three “Experimental Supersonic” aircraft. These were dubbed XS-1, but later the S was dropped for the familiar X-1.

At the time, the bullet was the only known stable supersonic shape. Aircraft were restricted to speeds lower than this by lack of engine power, drag, and turbulence/buffeting. Since the bullet is stable when supersonic, Bell reasoned that this would be a good shape for their aircraft, even restricting the shape of the canopy to the bullet’s outline, and the familiar profile of the X-1 was born.

The first X-1 was built during 1945, by today’s standards an amazingly short duration to develop an aircraft. Motive power was provided by a rocket developing 6000lb of thrust.

It ran on dilute ethyl alcohol and liquid oxygen, a mixture that must have seemed bizarre to maintainers brought up on piston powered aircraft, and a mixture that was to bring its own dangers.

The aircraft was equipped with landing gear, but was intended to be launched from a carrier aircraft, in this case a modified B-29.

Once in the air it would be dropped from the B-29 and the rocket motor ignited, to bring it up to speed. The motor would then be cut (or it would run out of its short supply of fuel) and the aircraft would glide back to earth. The test location was Muroc Army Air Field (now Edwards AFB) which offered plenty of flat landing areas if things went awry.

The X-1’s first flights were unpowered glides intended to gain knowledge of the handling and systems on the aircraft. Bell then performed 26 flights using the engine, gradually expanding the aircraft’s envelope, but the Air Force (now its own entity) grew impatient and took control of flight test.

On October 14th 1947 the X-1 was slung under the B-29. They took off and climbed to 8000ft, where Captain Charles “Chuck” Yeager took a small elevator down to the hatch of the aircraft he had named “Glamorous Glennis.” The whole process is shown in a wonderful silent video on the Smithsonian’s Air and Space site (you have to be patient and wait for the ad to play first).

At 23,000ft the B-29 went into a dive to reach the 250mph launch speed. When Yeager was released he lit the rocket, climbed to 43,000ft, and reached Mach 1.06, supersonic in level flight.

Before he had glided back to Muroc Field the flight had been declared secret, but despite that, news of the achievement leaked to the press before the year’s end. With the record publicly acknowledged, the 1948 Collier Trophy was jointly awarded to Chuck Yeager, Larry Bell of Bell, and John Stack of NACA. It was an honor, but there were plenty of people who would rather have kept the secret. How long the secret could have been kept is debatable, more X-1’s were flying, more were being built, and crews were transferring in and out of the program.

The atmosphere around Muroc Field wasn’t just filled with sonic booms, there was excitement, pride and dedication. To be a test pilot was a risky business, yet there were no shortage of candidates filled with a burning desire to be the best, the fastest, and the highest.

How strong was that desire? Well, a few days before the October 14th flight, Yeager broke two ribs in a horse riding accident. Knowing they were close to going supersonic and concerned he wouldn’t get that flight, he kept his accident quiet, but as you can see, flying the X-1 wouldn’t have been easy.

First he had to ignore the grinding of his ribs and fold himself into the small cockpit through that tiny hatch, then he had to use a foot long section of broom handle to secure the hatch because his injury wouldn’t allow him to reach the lever, and finally he had to endure the considerable forces of rocket powered flight. Injury or no, Yeager wasn’t going to miss his flight!

The quest for speed wasn’t slaked with Mach 1, and its dangers weren’t either. In the next post we’ll look at the other X-1s and what they, sometimes painfully, taught the world of aeronautics.

In the meantime, what do you think of Yeager’s actions? Was he reckless, risking a great national asset at a time when the US couldn’t afford such a cavalier attitude? Or was he a dedicated hero, enduring pain for his country?


(Images courtesy of NASA)


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