Bell X-1 rocket plane of the United States Air Force (NASA photo)

Bell X-1 rocket plane of the United States Air Force (NASA photo)

You have to admire Chuck Yeager if you’re any kind of aviation buff.

For all intents and purposes, the Bell X-1 was a death trap, and people didn’t know precisely what would happen if/when an airplane broke the sound barrier. So despite several tests in the X-1, Bell test pilot Chalmers “Slick” Goodlin demanded $150,000 to break the sound barrier and additional hazard pay for every minute he spent above Mach 0.85.

The men with the clipboards turned to Yeager, who was also working as a test pilot in the newly formed United States Air Force in 1947. They asked him what he’d charge to attempt to fly faster than sound. His response? “The Air Force already gives me a paycheck.”

Yeager flew the X-1 at Mach 1.07 at 45,000 ft. on October 14, 1947, becoming the first pilot to officially fly faster than the speed of sound.

Here’s the kicker: On October 12, 1947, Yeager fell off a horse and broke two ribs. He was so scared that officials would remove him from the historic flight that he went to a veterinarian for treatment. Yeager was in so much pain on the day of his flight that he had to use the end of a broom handle to close the hatch on the X-1.

With that level of intestinal fortitude, Yeager became the first man to break the sound barrier, and the X-1 became the first plane to do it.

The X-1 was a joint venture between the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (Now NASA) and United States Army and Air Force. It was built in 1945, and in 1948 the X-1 would max out at about 1,000 mph.

Yeager and his friend and fellow test pilot Jack Ridley would break another record with the Bell X-1A, a similar plane with larger fuel stores that allowed for longer engine burning. Yeager achieved a record of Mach 2.44 on December 12, 1953 in a flight that nearly killed him. Yeager lost aerodynamic control due to inertial coupling at approximately 80,000 ft. Yeager dropped 51,000 feet in less than a minute but regained control of the X-1A at 29,000 feet and landed the plane safely.

The X-1, and its variants, X-1A, X-1B, X-1D, and X-1E were rocket-powered airplanes, not “jets.” Three X-1’s were lost due to explosions. On November 9, 1951, X-1-3 blew up while being fe-dueled after a successful test flight. The explosion destroyed the aircraft, destroyed its B-50 mothership, and seriously burned pilot Joe Cannon. An X-1A exploded while being prepared for launch on August 8, 1955. An X-1D was also lost.

Three X-1’s survive. The original plane is on display next to The Spirit of St. Louis in the Milestones of Flight gallery of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. An X-1B is at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. An X-1E is on display at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, on the grounds below Yeager’s historic flight.

X-1 Specifications

General

Crew: 1
Length: 30 ft 11 in
Wingspan: 28 ft
Height: 10 ft
Empty weight: 7,000 lb
Max. takeoff weight: 12,250 lb
Engine: 1x Reaction Motors XLR-11-RM3 liquid fuel rocket, 6,000 lbf

Performance

Maximum speed: 957 mph (Mach 1.26)
Range: 5 minutes (powered endurance)
Ceiling: 71,900 ft
Thrust/weight: 0.49

Armament

Never armed. X-1C was intended to test the affects of supersonic flight on weapons, but the advent of production supersonic craft like the North American F-86 Sabre made this unnecessary. The X-1C never went beyond the mock-up stage.

Essential Reading

The definitive book on this subject is “The X-Planes: X-1 to X-45” by Jay Miller. It’s about $50, but it’s a worthwhile reference with almost 1,000 photographs. “Chuck Yeager and the Bell X-1: Breaking the Sound Barrier” is a $9 hardcover bargain, but a much better option is Yeager’s autobiography “The Quest for Mach One.”

You should also see the 1983 film “The Right Stuff.” It’s a long film that features the Gemini program, but early on the movie nicely retells Bell approaching Yeager to fly the X-1 past the sound barrier and his historic flight.

Online resources:

  • Wikipedia — Good place to start
  • Dryden Flight Research Center — NASA maintains a great gallery and fact sheet
  • ChuckYeager.com — Yeager’s official website
  • Smithsonian’s Milestones of Flight entry
  • About.com — Good entry on the history of the X-1
  • Photo Gallery