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This Day in History: Chuck Yeager's supersonic flight

On this day in 1947, a United States Air Force pilot nearly loses control of his plane while conducting a test flight. Always coolheaded, Chuck Yeager nevertheless got his plane to the ground—and learned from the experience. Just four days later, the World War II flying ace would become the first person to break the sound barrier.

Breaking the sound barrier today can be normal, but the accomplishment was extraordinary in 1947. No one then knew if a human being could survive the experience.

Unfortunately, one British pilot had already died in the attempt. Meanwhile, the American program seemed in trouble. Bell Aircraft Company had an Army contract and was building a plane, but its preferred pilot had upped his price.

Chalmers “Slick” Goodlin wanted $150,000 before he would attempt the flight. (That’s more than $1.8 million in today’s dollars.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Army took over. Yeager would be the one to make the trip—and he would do it at his regular captain’s pay of $3,396 per year.

“Selecting the X-1 pilot was one of the most difficult decisions of my life,” Colonel Albert Boyd said. “If the pilot had an accident, he could set back our supersonic program a couple of years . . . I wanted a pilot capable of doing extremely precise, scientific flying. Above all, I wanted a pilot who was rock solid in stability. Yeager came up number one.”

“He’s the only pilot I’ve ever flown with,” Maj. Gen. Fred J. Ascani agreed, “who gives the impression that he’s part of the cockpit hardware, so in tune with the machine that instead of being flesh and blood, he could be an autopilot.”

Of course, the preparations were no picnic. “That spring of 1947,” Yeager later wrote, “I was being strapped onto centrifuges or locked into altitude test chambers, testing different kinds of pressure suits. . . . [One time] they forgot to hook up [back-up pilot] Hoover’s oxygen supply inside his pressure suit, and he couldn’t exhale or inhale or communicate, and turned dark purple inside his helmet.”

Yeager even missed the birth of his second son during this time.

Then came the test flights. The bright orange Bell X-1 was to be dropped from a modified B-29 Superfortress at 20,000 feet. Yeager started with glide flights, then moved on to powered ones. Each test would push the plane a bit further than the time before. Problems would be assessed and corrected for the next round. Importantly, Yeager and his engineer solved a pitch problem that had long plagued these types of flights.

A stunt two days before the scheduled final flight nearly changed everything.

Yeager and his wife Glennis went out for a drink—or three or four? After a few hours, let’s just say that Yeager wasn’t exactly sober. Worse, he decided to get on a horse. The midnight ride left him with two broken ribs and excruciating pain whenever he moved his right arm.

Naturally, a flying Ace like Yeager wasn’t going to be stopped by a little thing like broken ribs—and he wasn’t going to tell Boyd, either. He taped up his ribs. With the help of his engineer, he rigged a way to get the X-1’s hatch closed with only his left arm.

Thus, he was safely in his seat when the X-1 was dropped from the B-29, just as planned, on October 14.

“Leveling off at 42,000 feet, I had thirty percent of my fuel,” Yeager later wrote, “so I turned on rocket chamber three and immediately reached .96 Mach. . . . Suddenly the Mach needle began to fluctuate. It went up to .965 Mach—then tipped right off the scale. I thought I was seeing things! We were flying supersonic! And it was as smooth as a baby’s bottom. . . . After all the anxiety, breaking the sound barrier turned out to be a perfectly paved speedway.”

“The fastest man alive,” as Yeager came to be known, passed away a few years ago at the age of 97. Rest in peace, sir.

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