Seventy Years Ago Today, Chuck Yeager Became The First Pilot To Break The Sound Barrier

Oct 14 2017 - 8 Comments

70 years ago, the first manned supersonic flight.

On Oct. 14, 1947, U.S Air Force Captain Charles “Chuck” Yeager (now 94), flying the rocket-powered Bell X-1 aircraft #46-062 christened “Glamorous Glennis,” dropped from the bomb bay of a specially modified B-29 from Muroc Army Air Field (now Edwards Air Force Base), “broke” the sound barrier achieving a peak speed of Mach 1.06 (361 m/s, 1,299 km/h) at 45,000 feet, before landing on a dry lake bed.

Chuck Yeager in front of the Bell X-1, the first aircraft to break the sound barrier in level flight.

It was flight number 50 and the achievement, meant to be secret but leaked to press later, took place in the skies over Rogers Dry Lake in the Mojave Desert.

Yeager enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army Air Forces Sept. 12, 1941. Later he was accepted to flight training in the flying sergeants program and, upon completion, was promoted to flight. Yeager demonstrated his flying skill during World War II when he became an, “ace in a day” after downing five enemy aircraft in one mission.

Yeager is among the guest stars in The Right Stuff, a 1983 American epic historical drama film based on Tom Wolfe’s best-selling 1979 book (actually he also play a cameo in the movie). The Right Stuff is about the Navy, Marine and Air Force test pilots who were involved in aeronautical research at Muroc Army Air Field, as well as the Mercury Seven, the seven military pilots who were selected to be the astronauts for Project Mercury, the first manned spaceflight by the United States.

The Right Stuff’s first part is about the attempt of breaking of the sound barrier that, indeed, “opened up the doors of space to us,” as Yeager explained 65 years later.

Interestingly, as shown in the movie, two nights before the schedule date for the record flight, Yeager fell from a horse and broke two ribs. He was worried that the injury prevent him from flying the mission. He went to a civilian doctor who taped his ribs and only told his wife, as well as friend and fellow project pilot Jack Ridley, about the accident.

On the day of the flight, Yeager could not seal the X-1’s hatch by himself, such was the pain from the broken ribs and Ridley, flying in the B-29 “mothership” along with his friend, helped Yeager to seal the hatch by means of a lever: the end of a broom handle.

The rest is history.

To celebrate the first supersonic flight the U.S. Air Force has released an interesting infographic that shows the milestones of supersonic flight: from Mach 1 of the Bell X-1 to Mach 9.6 achieved on Nov. 16, 2004, by the third flight of the X-43A Hyper-X, a small experimental unmanned research aircraft, built in three examples, designed to flight-demonstrate the technology of airframe-integrated supersonic ramjet or “scramjet” propulsion at hypersonic speeds above Mach 5.

  • Paul Rain

    God, what a time it was, and how much did we achieve?

    We should be on Mars now, but some feckless people had other priorities.
    http://delivery.gettyimages.com/xr/152209956.jpg?v=1&c=IWSAsset&k=3&d=77BFBA49EF8789215ABF3343C02EA548431D5DCE2AE1A17DE149B285C750CE25023B5AE2670B5DAFA55A1E4F32AD3138

  • leroy

    I have always wondered why the straight wing, when even the subsonic ME-262 had a swept wing. Here’s what I found:

    “The bullet shape was because of munitions research done many years before (.50 cal bullet travelled supersonic in a stable way **). The straight wing, we advocated that basically because of flight tests we did with a World War II fighter. The tail was high—we wanted that to wave in the wake from the turbulence from the wing.”

    https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/barrier/men.html

    Hmm … interesting. Wonder what the tests showed as to the advantage of straight over swept? Must have been a controllability issue (guessing). Naturally the U.S. was first at supersonic flight. As always, I am here to serve – only facts!

    ** The X-1 was, in principle, a “bullet with wings”, its shape closely resembling a Browning .50-caliber (12.7 mm) machine gun bullet, known to be stable in supersonic flight.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell_X-1

    • Graeme Rymill

      American aeronautical engineers were still digesting the captured German research on swept wings. Initial research on the design of the X-1 commenced in 1944. Bell received the contract to build the X-1 in March 1945.

      “The NACA [forerunner to NASA] briefly came under criticism by the AAF for not having suggested developing the Bell XS-1 from the outset as a swept-wing aircraft. (The agency, not unreasonably, replied that it had feared burdening the design with too many unknowns.)”

      Extract from Richard P. Hallion’s “The NACA, NASA, and the Supersonic-Hypersonic Frontier.” See page 238 of https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/607087main_NASAsFirst50YearsHistoricalPerspectives-ebook.pdf

  • Don1024

    I do love his cameo playing the bartender at Poncho’s. I thought Jeff Goldblum’s character was going to have a cow when he walked up with the bottle of whisky!

  • ReggieV

    I never understood that statement regarding the shape. A 50-cal projectile is gyroscopically (spin) stabilized and of course the aircraft is hopefully not spinning in usual flight. So really it has no bearing on the shape of the aircraft and its stability.

  • Holztransistor

    You left out an important step. First to be in space. That was someone else and not “God’s own country”. And your country has to rely on “the others” to get Astronauts in space since the Shuttle program had a sad ending. The Saturn V was also the work of a German scientist.

    Do not take this the wrong way. I have much respect for all the people who made these achievements possible. They were true pioneers. Scientists and pilots/astronauts/cosmonauts alike. You just should stop exaggerating as you do.

  • noamsaying

    There are tales that F86s in a dive were already unofficially breaking the barrier.

  • Anton Verberne

    They say (fighter)pilots are often full of themselves but Yeager tops them all. The man thinks he’s above God. Shame they chose him for this flight and not a more modest person.