14 October 1997: On the Fiftieth Anniversary of his historic supersonic flight in the Bell X-1 research rocketplane, Brigadier General Charles Elwood (“Chuck”) Yeager, United States Air Force (Retired) once again broke the Sound Barrier when he flew over Edwards Air Force Base in a McDonnell Douglas F-15D-38-MC Eagle, serial number 84-046. Lieutenant Colonel Troy Fontaine flew in the rear seat of the two-place fighter. Glamorous Glennis III was painted on the Eagle’s nose.
The Associated Press reported that an estimated 1,000 spectators were at Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert north of Los Angeles, California, to see this historic flight.
My friend, aviation photographer Tim Bradley, and I were there. Tim took the photograph above a few minutes after General Yeager landed. As he concluded his comments to the crowd, he said, “All that I am. . . I owe to the Air Force.”
14 October 1977: On the Thirtieth Anniversary of his historic supersonic flight in the Bell X-1, Brigadier General Charles E. (“Chuck”) Yeager, U.S. Air Force (Retired), returned to Edwards Air Force Base where he flew a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter to Mach 1.5.
14 October 1947: At approximately 10:00 a.m., a four-engine Boeing B-29 Superfortress heavy bomber, piloted by Major Robert L. Cardenas, took off from Muroc Air Force Base (now known as Edwards Air Force Base) in the high desert north of Los Angeles, California. The B-29’s bomb bay had been modified to carry the Bell XS-1, a rocket-powered airplane designed to investigate flight at speeds near the Speed of Sound (Mach 1).
Air Force test pilot Captain Charles Elwood (“Chuck”) Yeager, a World War II fighter ace, was the U.S. Air Force pilot for this project. The X-1 airplane had been previously flown by company test pilots Jack Woolams and Chalmers Goodlin. Two more X-1 aircraft were built by Bell, and the second, 46-063, had already begun its flight testing.
Captain Yeager had made three glide flights and this was to be his ninth powered flight. Like his P-51 Mustang fighters, he had named this airplane after his wife, Glamorous Glennis.
Bob Cardenas climbed to 20,000 feet (6,096 meters) and then put the B-29 into a shallow dive to gain speed. In his autobiography, Yeager wrote:
“One minute to drop. [Jack] Ridley flashed the word from the copilot’s seat in the mother ship. . . Major Cardenas, the driver, starts counting backwards from ten. C-r-r-ack. The bomb shackle release jolts you up from your seat, and as you sail out of the dark bomb bay the sun explodes in brightness. You’re looking at the sky. Wrong! You should have dropped level. The dive speed was too slow, and they dropped you in a nose-up stall. . .
“I fought it with the control wheel for about five hundred feet, and finally got her nose down. The moment we picked up speed I fired all four rocket chambers in rapid sequence. We climbed at .88 Mach. . . I turned off two rocket chambers. At 40,000 feet, we were still climbing at .92 Mach. Leveling off at 42,000 feet, I had thirty percent of my fuel, so I turned on rocket chamber three and immediately reached .96 Mach. . . the faster I got, the smoother the ride.
“Suddenly the Mach needle began to fluctuate. It went up to .965 Mach—then tipped right off the scale. . . .”
—Brigadier General Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Air Force (Retired), Yeager, An Autobiography, by Chuck Yeager and Leo Janos, Bantam Books, New York, 1985, Pages 120, 129–130.
Chuck Yeager and flown the XS-1 through “the sound barrier,” something many experts had believed might not be possible. His maximum speed during this flight was Mach 1.06 (699.4 miles per hour/1,125.7 kilometers per hour).
The Bell XS-1, later re-designated X-1, was the first of a series of rocket powered research airplanes which included the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, the Bell X-2, and the North American Aviation X-15, which were flown by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, NACA and its successor, NASA, at Edwards Air Force Base to explore supersonic and hypersonic flight and at altitudes to and beyond the limits of Earth’s atmosphere.
The X-1 is shaped like a bullet and has straight wings and tail surfaces. It is 30 feet, 10.98 inches (9.423 meters) long with a wing span of 28.00 feet (8.534 meters) and overall height of 10 feet, 10.20 inches (3.307 meters). Total wing area is 102.5 square feet ( 9.5 square meters). At its widest point, the diameter of the X-1 fuselage is 4 feet, 7 inches (1.397 meters). The empty weight is 6,784.9 pounds (3,077.6 kilograms), but loaded with propellant, oxidizer and its pilot with his equipment, the weight increased to 13,034 pounds (5,912 kilograms). The X-1 was designed to withstand an ultimate structural load of 18g.
The X-1 is powered by a four-chamber Reaction Motors, Inc., XLR11-RM-3 rocket engine which produced 6,000 pounds of thrust (26,689 Newtons). This engine burns a mixture of ethyl alcohol and water with liquid oxygen. Fuel capacity is 293 gallons (1,109 liters) of water/alcohol and 311 gallons (1,177 liters) of liquid oxygen. The fuel system is pressurized by nitrogen at 1,500 pounds per square inch (10,342 kilopascals).
The X-1 was usually dropped from a B-29 flying at 30,000 feet (9,144 meters) and 345 miles per hour (555 kilometers per hour). It fell as much as 1,000 feet (305 meters) before beginning to climb under its own power.
The X-1’s performance was limited by its fuel capacity. Flying at 50,000 feet (15,240 meters), it could reach 916 miles per hour (1,474 kilometers per hour), but at 70,000 feet (21,336 meters) the maximum speed that could be reached was 898 miles per hour (1,445 kilometers per hour). During a maximum climb, fuel would be exhausted as the X-1 reached 74,800 feet (2,799 meters). The absolute ceiling is 87,750 feet (26,746 meters).
The X-1 had a minimum landing speed of 135 miles per hour (217 kilometers per hour) using 60% flaps.
The three X-1 rocketplanes made a total of 157 flights with the three X-1. The number one ship, Glamorous Glennis, made 78 flights. On 26 March 1948, with Chuck Yeager again in the cockpit, it reached reached Mach 1.45 (957 miles per hour/1,540 kilometers per hour) at 71,900 feet (21,915 meters).
The third X-1, 46-064, made just one glide flight before it was destroyed 9 November 1951 in an accidental explosion.
The second X-1, 46-063, was later modified to the X-1E. It is on display at the NASA Dryden Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base.
Glamorous Glennis is on display at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum, next to Charles A. Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis.
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.
26 April 1948: At Muroc Field (now known as Edwards Air Force Base), in the high desert of southern California, North American Aviation test pilot George Welch put the prototype XP-86 Sabre, 45-59597, into a 40° dive and broke the Sound Barrier. It is only the second U.S. aircraft to fly supersonic. The first was the Bell X-1, piloted by Chuck Yeager, only a few months earlier.
Or, maybe not.
In his book, Aces Wild: The Race For Mach 1, fellow North American Aviation test pilot Albert W. Blackburn makes the case that George Welch had taken the prototype XP-86 Sabre supersonic on its first flight, 1 October 1947, and that he had done so three times before Chuck Yeager first broke the Sound Barrier with the Bell X-1 rocketplane, 14 October 1947. Blackburn described two runs through the NACA radar theodolite with speeds of Mach 1.02 and 1.04 on 13 November 1947.
Mr. Blackburn speculates—convincingly, in my opinion—that Secretary of the Air Force W. Stuart Symington, Jr., ordered that Welch’s excursions beyond Mach 1 were to remain secret. However, during a radio interview, British test pilot Wing Commander Roland Prosper (“Bee”) Beamont, C.B.E, D.S.O. and Bar, D.F.C. and Bar, stated that he had flown through the Sound Barrier in the number two XP-86 Sabre prototype (45-59598). Once that news became public, the U.S. Air Force released a statement that George Welch had flown beyond Mach 1 earlier, but gave the date as 26 April 1948.
It wasn’t long after the first flight of the XP-86 on October 1, 1947, that Welch dropped into Horkey’s [Edward J. Horkey, an aerodynamicist at North American Aviation] office at the Inglewood plant. He wanted to talk about his recent flight and some “funny” readings in the airspeed indicator. He had made a straight-out climb to more than 35,000 feet. Then, turning back toward Muroc Dry Lake, he began a full-power, fairly steep descent.
“I started at about 290 knots,” Welch was explaining to Horkey. “In no time I’m at 350. I’m still going down, and I’m still accelerating but the airspeed indicator seems stuck like there’s some kind of obstruction in the pitot tube. I push over a little steeper and by this time I’m through 30,000 feet. All of a sudden, the airspeed indicator flips to 410 knots. The aircraft feels fine, no funny noises, no vibration. Wanted to roll off to the left, but no big deal. Still, I leveled out at about 25,000 and came back on the power. The airspeed flicked back to 390. What do you think?”
“. . . You may be running into some Mach effects. . . .”
— Aces Wild: The Race For Mach 1, by Al Blackburn, Scholarly Resources Inc., Wilmington, Delaware, 1999, at Pages 147–148.
The “funny” reading of the airspeed indicator became known as the “Mach jump.” George Welch was the first to describe it.
The Sabre became a legendary jet fighter during the Korean War. 9,860 were built by North American, as well as by licensees in Canada, Australia and Japan.
George Welch had been recommended for the Medal of Honor for his actions as a P-40 Warhawk fighter pilot in Hawaii, December 7, 1941. He was killed while testing a North American Aviation F-100A Super Sabre, 12 October 1954.