Historic Aircraft: Bell X-1 Breaking the Sound Barrier

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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.


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Man has always been interested in the concept of flying, with many an adventurer attempting to become airborne. Around the year 400 BC, the Chinese discovered the kite, a object that could fly in the air, and they built many colorful kites for recreation, fun and decoration. More refined kites were built to test weather conditions. Kites have been a very important factor in the invention of flight, as they were the forerunners of hot air balloons and gliders.

For many centuries after the discovery of flying kites, humans have tried to fly just like birds. They built wings made out of feathers and light weight wood and attached them to their arms, but the results were disastrous. The muscles of the human arm is not like a birds and can not move with such strength.

In the 1480s Leonardo da Vinci made the first real studies of flight. He designed the Ornithopter and had over 100 drawings illustrating his theories of flight. The Ornithopter was never built in his lifetime, but it played an important role in today’s modern helicopter.

When man realized that hot air goes up and cold air comes down, new hope was born. Two brothers, Joseph Michel and Jacques Etienne Montgolfier invented the first hot air balloon. They used the smoke from a fire to blow hot air into a silk bag. The silk bag was attached to a basket and the hot air then rose and allowed the balloon to be lighter than air. The first passengers to try out the balloon were a sheep, a duck and a rooster. The balloon ascended to a height of approximately 6,000 feet and travel about a mile. The first human passengers to test this new invention were Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent.

Around the 1800s George Cayley worked very hard studying ways that man could fly. He then designed many different versions of gliders that used the movements of the body to control. He improved his design over a period of about 50 years, changing the wings so that the air would flow over it correctly and designing a tail to help with stability. He then recognized that a fixed wing aircraft with a power system for propulsion and a tail for stability and control of the airplane would be the best way to allow man to fly.

Otto Lilienthal, a German engineer that studied aerodynamics, was the first person to design a glider that could allow a person to fly over significant distances. He wrote a book on aerodynamics, based on his studies and on the way that birds fly. The Wright Brothers used his text as a basis for their designs.

Samuel Langley, an astronomer, built a model of a plane that included a steam-powered engine, which he called an aerodrome. His model flew three-quarters of a mile before running out of fuel. He received $50,000 grant to build a full sized aerodrome, but unfortunately it was too big and crashed.

Wilbur and Orville Wright studied all the books that had been published on the subject and began to test all the early theories of flight. Eventually they built an airplane “The Flyer” with a 12 horsepower engine which lifted the aircraft from level ground, going on to invent the first successful airplane that travelled one hundred and twenty feet in twelve seconds. Future developments of aircraft were all based in some manner on the two Wright Brother’s first flight at Kitty Hawk.

In 1947 Chuck Yeager became the very first pilot to exceed the speed of sound. In 1976 the Concorde Airplane took to the airways and crossed the Atlantic in three hours.

Chuck Yeager

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Chuck Yeager‘s most recognized achievement is being the first man to break the sound barrier, which he did on October 14, 1947 as a test pilot for the U.S. Air Force.

Much earlier in his career, Yeager flew for the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II. Shortly after he claimed his first kill, he was shot down over enemy territory. The French resistance assisted him in his escape to Spain, and he subsequently returned to active duty. Before the war ended, Yeager had flown 64 combat missions with 13 enemy kills to his credit.

During the Korean War, Yeager set a new record by flying more than double the speed of sound with an airspeed of 1,650 mph. In addition to his duties as a test pilot in Korea, he also led a fighter squadron based in Europe.

Yeager was promoted to full colonel in time for the Vietnam War, during which he commanded the 405th fighter wing. In addition to also training bomber pilots, hew flew 127 air-support missions.

Yeager received a promotion to brigadier general in 1968, a rare achievement for someone who began his military career as an enlisted man. In 1976, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Some of his other numerous decorations include the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Purple Heart, the Legion of Merit with oak leaf cluster, the Distinguished Flying Cross with two clusters, the Bronze Star with V device, the Silver Star with oak leaf cluster, the Air Medal with ten clusters, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the Air Force Commendation medal. In 1973, he became the first military pilot inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame.

In 1979, Tom Wolfe immortalized Chuck Yeager in his best selling book, The Right Stuff which was later made into a movie.