14 October 1947

Test pilot George S. Welch, wearing his distinctive orange helmet, in the cockpit of the prototype North American Aviation XP-86. (U.S. Air Force)

14 October 1947: Twenty minutes before Captain Charles E. (“Chuck”) Yeager broke the sound barrier with a Bell X-1 rocketplane, North American Aviation Chief Test Pilot George S. Welch put the swept-wing XP-86 prototype, serial number 45-59597, into a shallow dive from 37,000 feet (11,278 meters) and accelerated. In direct violation of orders from the Secretary of the Air Force to not do so, Welch broke the “sound barrier.”

Witnesses on the ground heard the distinctive “B-BOOM” double-shock as the aircraft exceeded the speed of sound. Welch was the first to observe “Mach jump” as the airspeed indicator momentarily indicated higher due to the compression of air in front of the aircraft.

Estimates are that the XP-86 reached Mach 1.02–1.04 on this flight.

George S. Welch with his MG sports car and the North American XP-86. (Unattributed)
George S. Welch with his MG T-series sports car and North American Aviation  XP-86 45-59597. (Unattributed)

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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About Bryan Swopes

Bryan R. Swopes grew up in Southern California in the 1950s–60s, near the center of America's aerospace industry. He has had a life-long interest in aviation and space flight. Bryan is a retired commercial helicopter pilot and flight instructor.

11 thoughts on “14 October 1947

  1. As you see my surname is Welch; I s there any chance we are in the same family tree?

    I was born in Mere, Wiltshire, England in 1943. Our family groups are around Bristol, Mere, and Brighton.

    1. You could try Ancestry.com. The genealogical information available there is amazing. We do know that George S. Welch was the son of George L. Schwartz, who was a chemist employed by DuPont. Mr. and Mrs. Schwartz lived in or near Wilmington, Delaware. Mrs. Schwartz’s maiden name was Welch, but unfortunately, I do not have any other information about her or her family.

        1. Following World War I, there was a lot of anti-German sentiment in the United States. His parents were afraid that he would suffer discrimination and/or abuse because of the family name Schwartz, so they used his mother’s family name, Welch. 2nd Lt. George S. Welch was credited with shooting down three Aichi D3A Type 99 “Val” dive bombers and one Mitsubishi A6M2 Type 0 “Zero” fighter on 7 December 1941. . . World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker modified his family name, Reichenbacher, and adopted a middle name, Vernon, for the same reason—to sound more American.

  2. It is a pure fairy tale spread by Al Blackburn in his book “Aces Wilds” : The Race for Mach 1″ . Only Millie Palmer Welch’s girlfriend FYI and stewardess from the “Happy Bottom Riding Club” claimed to have heard the sonic boom. 20 minutes before Yeager passed Mach 1! The XP-86 had flown only three times (of which two with major technical problems with the landing gear and an underpowered J35 jet engine) before the first X-1 supersonic flight day, on October 14th 1947. Neither Welch or North American would have taken such a big risk just to challenge Yeager without any official recordings.
    Years later F-86As equipped with more powerful J47 jet engines flew supersonic without any difficult.

  3. A lot of people like to go by the “written” story of the XP-86 program and when it received the J-47 engine. I’ve spoken with pilot Steve Hinton (of Planes of Fame and F-86 expert) and he contends that the XP-86 couldn’t have gone supersonic in a dive with the J-35 engine.

    However, I contend the following. First of all the XP-86 was a higher classified program to that of the X-1 itself. Everyone likes the “No Sir, no press” scene in the movie The Right Stuff but given the F-86 was to become the US Air Force’s premier fighter aircraft, it was clearly a higher classified program during testing. While The X-1 program was operating out of the south end of Muroc dry Lake bed and adjacent to what would eventually become Edwards AFB, North American Aviation and the XP-86 program were operating at the north end of Muroc hardly any infrastructure there. So the X-1 guys knew little of what the guys at the north end of the lake bed were doing. Also, it’s easy to “adjust” history and slow the F-86’s development and when it received the J-47 engine, the engine that made it possible for operational F-86As to go super sonic in a dive. I say Welch did boom the guys to the south that morning before Yeager’s flight.

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