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Concorde. It’s iconic. The name, its shape and its abilities are all legendary – 4000 miles at Mach 2, twice a day with a hundred people on board. Its the stuff people in jumbos and 777 yearn for. No matter its cost overruns, over its near 30 year life it built a reputation as the supersonic airliner. “The” it may be, but the first it wasn’t, not by a long way.

In the 1960s there were numerous aircraft builders in the US and abroad, each was looking for a way to stand out. William Magruder, a Douglas Aircraft Corporation test pilot, found a way.

On 21st August 1961, he took off from Long Beach for Edwards AFB in a Douglas DC-8. The aircraft was as light as possible with only enough fuel for a 30 minute loiter at Edwards. En-route he gained altitude, and once over Edwards at 52,000ft, he executed a 0.5g pushover and held it there.

A half g pushover can generate a pretty rapid rate of descent. Richard Edwards, the flight test engineer, stopped looking out of the window because it felt as if they were heading straight down. Besides he had a job to do, every 1,000ft he had to call out the airspeed required for the magic Mach 1. He was kept busy, in the dive they were crossing another 1,000ft every couple seconds.

At 45,000ft they reached Mach 1.01 and held it there for 15 seconds, the first airliner to go supersonic. All Magruder had to do was pull out. There are lots of reasons why the speed of sound was considered a barrier, and Magruder found one of them, the airflow over the control surfaces had become disturbed and they were ineffective. When he resorted to using the stabilizers to reduce their speed, the electric motors tripped out because of the aerodynamic load.

I think I’d have been using every cuss word I knew at this point, but not Magruder, he just pushed over, steeper into the dive. His idea was to change the load on the stabilizers and free them. It worked, and he was able to recover the aircraft around 35,000ft.

I’m not sure if the flight test engineer looked out of the window at this point, but he had he would have noticed the flight had another link to the quest for speed. Following the DC-8 was an F-104 chase plane, its occupant no stranger to airborne crisis and cool thinking – Chuck Yeager.

Douglas weren’t slow to capitalize on their achievement and mailed out letters that had been on board the aircraft and travelled faster than the speed of sound.

Once again the air over Muroc Field had been witness to another piece of aviation history. If there’s ever a move to make air a national historic site, the space above Edwards should be first on that list.

Obviously, this was a publicity stunt, the aircraft wasn’t capable of sustained supersonic flight, but it got there, fifty years ago and almost a decade before Concorde. You could say it was reckless, but the aircraft was designed for 0.97 Mach, pushing it a little further was almost the mantra of the pilots and machines of the X-plane program. It’s one example of the pioneering spirit that put the US at the forefront of aviation. A spirit that was fostered by competition, in an age where competition was embraced with spirit, not take overs. Perhaps that’s why there isn’t a supersonic airliner in operation today.

Even if you don’t think competition is the reason, you have to wonder why if it could be done 50 years ago, why don’t people want it done now?


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