Ever since man first took to the skies in powered aircraft, pilots and aviation engineers have sought to overcome challenges and push perceived boundaries as technology developed. One of the much debated challenges back in the early 1940s was whether it was possible for an aircraft to travel fast enough to break the sound barrier. On October 14, 1947, legendary pilot Chuck Yeager proved it was indeed possible when he pushed the Bell X-1 he was flying to Mach 1.06 (1,100 km/h; 700 mph) going down in history as the first pilot to break the sound barrier.
Nicknamed Glamorous Glennis in honor of Yeager’s wife, the Bell X-1 was built by the Bell Aircraft Company under the direction of a joint supersonic research project run by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the US Army Forces and the US Air Force. The concept for the airplane was developed in 1944 and it was built the following year. The fuselage of the X-1 was shaped like a 0.5-calibre machine gun bullet for stability and the thin wings were designed to reduce drag. As it was only later discovered that the swept-wing design is more efficient for speed, the X-1′s wings were at a 90 degree angle to the fuselage. The pilot was seated inside a confined cockpit in the nose, behind a sloped, framed window, and the airplane was powered by a single XLR-11 engine running on liquid oxygen, alcohol and water.
On the historic sound barrier breaking flight, the supersonic Bell X-1 was drop-launched from a B-29 Superfortress bomber airplane at an altitude of 23,000 feet (7,000 meters), where it quickly climbed to its test altitude of 43,000 feet (13,000 meters) and proceeded to break the sound barrier before landing on a dry lake bed. In recognition of their achievement, the 1948 Collier Trophy was awarded jointly to Larry Bell of Bell Aircraft, Captain Charles “Chuck” Yeager, and John Stack of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.
As the first in the so-called X-planes, the X-1 set the pattern for future projects, with data collected during its test flights providing essential information for later aircraft designs.
Located in Rexburg, Idaho, the Legacy Flight Museum opened to the public in 2006 offering visitors the opportunity to examine up close some of the historical aircraft that were built to protect the country’s freedom. Started by local aircraft enthusiast John Bagley, the museum collection grew to include a dozen aircraft, all of which are maintained in pristine condition and are airworthy. Every second year the museum hosts an air show with many of the museum’s aircraft taking to the skies, along with aerobatic pilots and their own airplanes. But these classic aircraft are not only dusted off and flown every two years, they are a familiar sight in the skies above Rexburg throughout the year.
The Beechcraft Staggerwing D17S was considered in the 1930s to be a top-of-the-range airplane designed with business executives in mind. With its upper wing further back than the lower wing, each Staggerwing was built by hand and powered by a 450 HP Pratt and Whitney radial engine. When the airplane first hit the market, it was during the depression and considered to be pricy at between US$14,000 and US$17,000, but by the time World War II came around Beechcraft had sold 424 Staggerwing aircraft. The airplanes speed and durability also made it popular in the new sport of air racing. It won the 1933 Texaco Trophy Race, and in 1937 Jackie Cochran set a women’s speed record of 203.9 mph, reaching an altitude of more than 30,000 feet and finishing third in the 1937 Bendix Trophy Race. British diplomat Capt. H.L. Farquhar flew around the world in a Beechcraft Staggerwing Model B17R in 1935, covering a distance of 21,332 miles. Visitors can get a close look at this fantastic airplane that made its way into the record books a number of times.
Another legendary airplane on display is a P-51D Mustang fondly dubbed ‘Ole Yeller’, previously flown by legendary pilot Bob Hoover. Widely considered to be one of the founders of modern aerobatics, Hoover has numerous military medals, and is listed as the third greatest aviator in history in the Centennial of Flight edition of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
Other airplanes on display at the Legacy Flight Museum include a Grumman TBM-3 Avenger, a North American T-6 Texan, a Howard DGA-15, an L-52 Grasshopper, a P-63 King Cobra and an O-1 Bird Dog. The Legacy Flight Museum is open between Memorial Day and Labor Day from Monday to Saturday from 9am to 5pm and From Labor Day to Memorial Day on Fridays and Saturdays from 9am to 5pm weather permitting.