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Chasing the Demon

The Bell X-1A


The Bell X-1A was the first aircraft of the second generation of the X-1 variants. Longer and heavier than the original X-1 with a bubble canopy for better vision, the X-1A was powered by the same Reaction Motors XLR-11 rocket engine.


The main difference though, was in the fuel system. It had larger fuel tanks and a turbo-driven fuel pump to enable the X-1A to operate under power for much longer than the original X-1, which enabled it to fly higher farther and faster than the original X-1.


When Bell's company test pilot Jean "Skip" Ziegler flew it, Chuck flew as a chase pilot on these flights. But Ziegler got "spooked" by the aircrafts handling. When he looked out of the canopy at the wings, he saw shockwaves forming and told Yeager that his "aileron's were buzzing like mad", Yeager told him to "Press On and it will smooth on out for you" and continue with the flight, as this was an identical trait of the original X-1. Ziegler didn't "Press On" and the same thing happened on his next two flights.


Thinking that the airplane was unstable, he began to worry Bell's engineers with his concern. Bell's engineers decided to have the airplane returned to the plant at Buffalo for static ground testing.


Ziegler also went back to Buffalo and while he was there, he took part in a fueling test of the X-2, another Bell experimental rocket-powered research airplane. While flying with the X-2 mated to the B-50 motherplane, Skip was in the cockpit when the LOX (liquid oxygen) tank suddenly blew up at 20,000 feet. Ziegler and the X-2 were torn from the B-50 and fell the 20,000 feet to the bottom of Lake Ontario. Poor Ziegler had no chance. As Yeager says in his autobiography "same old story, another civilian test-pilot in over his head".


Bell asked the Air Force if they would take over the testing of the X-1A and requested that Yeager take over as test-pilot. General Boyd agreed and and brought back together Jack Ridley, Dick Frost & Jack Russell, Yeager's crew chief (the old X-1 team) to help.


Any pilot flying the original X-1 new that if they ever had to bail out they would end up both sides of the wing and had no chance of survival. The parachute they had served no other purpose than that something to sit on. The X-1A was another kettle of fish entirely. When the pilot was strapped in, the canopy was bolted down and the only way of survival was to land the airplane successfully!


Yeager flies the X-1A


Chuck Yeager first flew the X-1A on November 21st 1953, the flight was perfect and Yeager flew on out to Mach 1.3 at 45,000 feet. The airplane flew beatifully and exactly like the X-1 and Yeager felt right at home.


Two more flights on December 2nd and December 8th produced speeds of Mach 1.5 & Mach 1.9. Yeager had told his crew chief, Jack Russell, "Hey, you sumbitch, if I get a fire warning light, I'm gonna strap you in my lap on the next ride and let you deal with it." Russell and the rest of his ground crew knew Chuck's neck was on the line and kept the rocket chambers so clean that they were germ-free!


Fourth Powered Flight - December 12th 1953


Over the years Chuck Yeager was to set many speed and altitude records in the Bell X-1 and the Bell X-1A. In fact he still holds the world airspeed record for a straight winged aircraft of Mach 2.44 or 1648 mph.


This record was set on the 12th December 1953 in the X-1A. On this flight he was strapped into the cockpit of the X-1A which was shackled to the belly of the B-50 motherplane and dropped from high altitude over Edwards Air Force Base in southern California, he lit the Four Rocket Chambers and proceeded to climb to 76000 feet, nosing the airplane over he commenced with his speed run. When he reached his maximum speed of Mach 2.44 the aircraft suffered from roll coupling and he began a wild and violent tumble towards the desert floor.


Careening all over the sky, the airplane was snapping, rolling and spinning all at once, pilots call this "going divergent on three axis", Chuck called it hell.


The X-1A had no ejection seat, so to save himself he also had to save the aircaft. After spinning and tumbling for 51000 feet in 51 seconds, the ship flipped into a normal spin at 30,000 and Chuck thought "I know how to get out of this" and began standard spin recovery.


He broke the cockpit canopy with his head and it was only due to the superb skills of the pilot that he and the aircaft survived.


Managing to be humorous in his radio message to Jack Ridley, he said "I think I can get back to base okay, Jack. Boy, I'm not gonna do that again. Those (Bell) guys were so right(warning against going faster than Mach 2.3). If I hadda (ejection) seat you wouldn't still see me sitting in here".


Everyone who has listened to the audio-tapes of this flight has been in disbelief that one moment they were listening to a pilot in mortal danger, the next he's cracking a joke (the web-site author included). To read the transcript of the audio recording, click X-1A flight, Dec 12th 1953.


Summing up


There were no more high speed attempts in the X-1A, the Air Force concentrating on high altitude flight, Major Arthur "Kit" Murray getting up to 90,400 feet. After Chuck's last flight in the X-1A, he and the Air Force decided that he should get out of the testing business before he became another statistic (and road) at Edwards Air Force Base.


On this subject, Chuck Yeager is the only living test-pilot to have a road named after him at Edwards AFB (Yeager Boulevard), all the other roads at the base are named after pilots that bought the farm.



X-1A Flight December 12th, 1953 Audio and Transcript


I would like to express my gratitude to Major General Fred J. Ascani for sourcing the audio and transcript for me. Below you will find the transcript of the actual air to air and air to ground communications of Chuck Yeager's wild ride in the Bell X-1A on December 12 1953.


There are four segments of the most fascinating parts of the audio, converted into highly compressed MP3 files. Each clip is approximately 100KB in size and last's for around 1 minute. To hear the clips, just click on the play button on the audio player below. To skip to the next clip, use the "skip" button on the player. The transcript is also in 4 parts, click each thumbnail for the larger image.


On this flight, the first ever instance of inertia-coupling occurred. A terrifying incident in which Chuck Yeager was fortunate to escape with his life. Fellow legendary test pilot A. Scott Crossfield said that "It was fortunate that it was Charlie Yeager at the controls that day. Otherwise we might not have had the ship to fly another day".


It is in the author's opinion, that no-one else would have been able to save the X-1A from drilling a hole in the desert floor that day. The most impressive thing I have ever heard!