Sixty Eight Years Ago: Mach 1.06

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On October 14, 1947, then-Captain Charles “Chuck” Yeager exceeded the speed of sound over the High Desert of California. Officially, it was the first time (with proof) that Mach 1 had been exceeded… and there should be an asterisk after this statement.  This was the first time that it was successfully exceeded, as other pilots may have unknowingly exceeded this benchmark in dives, but had lost their lives in crashes as control was lost or their aircraft broke up.  Some well-known test pilots had lost their lives in well planned attempts to exceed the speed of sound too. It was a very important achievement for the new U.S. Air Force – a new branch of service in existence for less than a month after the Army Air Corps was restructured and renamed. The purpose-built Bell XS-1 (eXperimental, Supersonic), better known as the X-1 later, was part of a program begun by the U.S. Army Air Force and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) to exceed the speed of sound.  Bell Aircraft built three X-1s; but only two of these, serials 46-062 and 46-063, flew the lion’s share of the 157 test flights of the program. Initial glide tests began at the Pinecastle Army Air Field (AAF) in Florida on January 19, 1946.  Later that year, the program moved to California’s Muroc AAF base. The program’s first powered X-1 flight occurred on December 9, 1946, on flight number 15.  Captain Yeager broke the sound barrier on flight number 50, officially reaching Mach 1.06. In 1997, the 50th anniversary of this accomplishment was celebrated at Edwards Air Force Base – which is the modern day name of the original Muroc AAF.  To open that celebratory air show, now-General Yeager broke the sound barrier again, this time flying an F-15 Eagle.  Sonic booms are almost routinely heard in this part of the country, but this one was a special salute to the historic first. After the flight, a replica of the X-1 he flew hung behind the podium as he addressed the world’s media about the occasion. Today, in 2015, some physical history still remains from that program.  The X-1 that broke the sound barrier – 46-062 – is part of the Smithsonian Institution’s collection of aircraft. The so-called “Yeager Pit”, where the X-1 was attached underneath its B-29 mother ship is still preserved too. And retired General Chuck Yeager is 92 years old.  Although the speed record made in 1947 has been shattered over and over again in the subsequent 68 years, the fact that the aircraft and pilot did break the sound barrier and live to tell about it hasn’t been diminished one bit. gen yeager 2

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