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Chuck Yeager & the Bell X-1 will always be remembered as a formidable combination. Individualy they were both too hot to handle for the vast majority of the United States Air Force.
When Col Albert G Boyd selected Captain Charles E Yeager as the prime pilot for the bell XS-1(as it was called then, the X is for experimental, the S is for supersonic, #1 as this was the first of its kind. Later the S was dropped & the aircraft was known as the X-1) it was a very pivotal point for the USAF & aircraft history. This was the first time that an entire flight test programme was undertaken by the airforce, if Chuck Yeager or the Bell X-1 failed; flight tests would be back in the hand of the contractor demonstrator pilots.
The rest of the Air Force team were
Lt. Robert "Bob" Hoover - Backup Pilot/High chase pilot (He would subsequently never fly the X-1 due to an accident).
Capt. Jackie L Ridley - Engineer in charge/Program manager (He would be the second fastet pilot in X-1 history).
Maj. Robert "Bob" Cardenas - Administrative officer in charge/Drop pilot.
Capt. Ed Swindell - B-29 Flight Engineer.
Dick Frost(On loan from Bell) - Technical backup/Low chase pilot.
Jack Russell - Crew chief in charge of ground crew.
The center photograph above is the small Air Force X-1 team from left to right; Lt Edward Swindell (B-29 flight Engineer); Lt Bob Hoover (X-1 backup pilot and chase pilot); Maj Bob Cardenas (officer-in-charge and B-29 drop pilot); Yeager; Dick Frost (Bell X-1 project engineer and chase pilot) and Capt Jackie Ridley (Air Force X-1 project engineer).
Yeager's first flight in the X-1 would be an unpowered glide flight made on August 6th 1947, just after being dropped and clearing from the B-29 mothership Chuck executed two slow rolls. This point is very important, remember #1 This was the first time Yeager flew a "glider", #2 This was his first flight in the X-1, #3 This was the first time he had flown an aircraft that had not taken off from a runway under its own power. I would think that the majority of pilots would not even attempt such a manouvre in their first flight in an experimental aircraft, this point is stressed to let you know how Chuck Yeager flew back then -BALLS TO THE WALL-. Yeager summarized his feelings about the plane to Dick Frost as "the best damn plane I ever flew". The glide programme was completed with flights on the 7th & 8th of August 1947. The powered programme would commence once the B-29 had its 100 hour major overhaul. The repairs would take until the end of August to complete, so the first Airforce powered flight would take place on August 29th.
August 29th 1947 - First Powered flight
After the pre-drop checklists were complete Jack Ridley urged Chuck to "Take it easy, son", because Ridley knew how Chuck flew. Shortly after drop Yeager turned on Chamber 1 and felt a surge of acceleration like never before, like a kick in the butt. Just as he had practised in the ground tests, he quickly lit off Chamber 2, shut down #1, lit #3, shut down #2, what came next was not on the flight plan. Yeager executed a slow roll, just as he had done in his first glide flight, this time though when halfway through the roll power from the rocket engine was cut off due zero gravity(The X-1 didn't have a fuel pump, fuel was supplied by pressurised fuel tanks), when the roll was completed the engine fired again. Dick Frost flying low chase yelled over the radio "My God... thats not in the flight plan, Yeager!". Anyone else would have been scared witless at this point, but not Chuck Yeager. But Yeager wasn't thru yet, after shutting down the engine, he dived towards Muroc Airforce Base, Frost called out "Hey, where the hell are you going?", Yeager replied "To show the brass down there a real airplane". After leveling out only 2700 feet above the deck with one chamber running, Yeager streaked past the tower, pulled up into a 15 degree climb and lit off all four chambers, my god what a kick in the butt, the full power of the motor allowed him to climb from 9000 feet to 30000 feet in almost an instant, he was climbing at mach 0.85 almost vertically. The flight plan called for a levell flight of maximum mach number 0.80. Yeager summed up his feelings to his friend 'Bud' Anderson in a letter "I was so darned excited, scared and thrilled(You know that first kill in Germany feeling) I couldn't say a word until next day".
The head of the flight test division at Wright field, Col Albert G Boyd certainly wanted to know why his pilot deviated from the flight plan. In his report to Col Boyd as to why this happened, Yeager wrote back "The airplane felt so good and flew so well that I felt certain we would have no trouble going slightly above the agreed speed. The violation of your direct orders was due to the excited state of the undersigned and will not be repeated".
October 14th 1947 - Beyond The Wall
The date was October 14th 1947, the place Muroc Air Force Base(later renamed Edwards AFB) Southern California. A few days previous to this date, Chuck & Glennis Yeager had went out for a horse ride after a meal at Pancho Barnes Fly Inn Ranch, while racing back towards the Ranch, Yeager could not see that someone had closed the Corral gate (it was now very dark). The horse threw Yeager and in the fall he broke two of his ribs and confided only in his close friend and engineer on the project Captain Jack L Ridley that due to the accident he would be unable to close the hatch of the X-1. He also went to a Doctor friend (a veterinarian!) who taped up his ribs and agreed not to mention it to anyone.
On the morning of the flight Chuck found out the Jackie Ridley had sawn off approximately 10 inches of a broom handle in order for him to close the hatch.
The X-1 was mated to the B-29 mothership by a standard heavy duty bomb shackle and the pilot of the B-29 was Major Robert "Bob" Cardenas who also happened to be in charge of the project at Muroc. Flying high chase in a Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star was First Lieutenant Robert A "Bob" Hoover. The photograph below was taken by Bob Hoover on 14th October 1947.
When the B-29 reached 8000 feet, Yeager climbed into the bomb bay and lowered himself on the little elevator down to the X-1's open hatch. In some discomfort he managed to get in, get hooked up to all the aircraft's systems(radio, oxygen, etc), then the door was lowered and with the aid of the broom handle he was able to lock the door. After climbing to the launch altitude of 20000 feet, Cardenas put the B-29 into a shallow dive to obtain the lauching speed of 250 mph, then the countdown began 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,2,1, drop(Cardenas always missed out either 3 or 2 in the count).
After dropping away from the B-29 Yeager quickly lit off all the engine chambers and climbed on out to 35000 feet and turned off 2 of the chambers, he continued climing out to 42000 feet and in level flight he re lit the 3rd chamber, at Mach 0.92 he encountered the usual buffetting, the machmeter climbed to mach 0.97 when it then fluctuated off the scale(the meter was only calibrated to mach 1.0, thats how much faith there was in the project at that time in being able to exceed mach 1.0). Chuck Yeager said "hey Ridley, there's something wrong with this old Machmeter, its gone kinda screwy on me, its jumped on off the scale", Jack Ridley retorted "well if it is go ahead and bust it, personally I think your seeing things". That was how the USAF learned about breaking the sound barrier. The maximum speed of the flight was Mach 1.07(650 mph at 42000 feet). After gliding back to base for an unpowered landing Yeager and the rest of the team wrote up their reports, click the image below to read the flight report from Yeager's first supersonic flight. To read the transcript of the air to air and air to ground radio communication's from one of the three most important flight's in history (the others being the Wright Brothers first flight on December 17th 1903 at Kitty Hawk, NC) & Charles Lindbergh's New York to Paris flight in the Spririt of St. Louis), click here.
At the time of Yeager's first supersonic flight, he had accumalted a total of 1,452:30 flying hours (this information kindly provided by Dr. Raymond Puffer of the AFFTC/HO). The other aircraft Yeager flew in October 1947 were the AT-6 Texan and the P-84 Thunderjet.
No Party for Yeager
After the first supersonic flight, Chuck was so tired from the pain caused by his broken ribs that he wanted to go home with Glennis. The rest of the X-1 team was not about to allow the worlds first supersonic flight to be uncelebrated. A veil of secrecy descended upon the flight almost as soon as Yeager had landed, so it was decided that the celebrations could not go ahead at Pancho’s as had previously been agreed.
Deciding instead to head for Chuck’s house, Hoover, Ridley, Frost et al turned up at 430pm. Yeager made a pitcher of martinis for his guests and it did not take long for the pain from his broken ribs to be forgotten. Jackie Ridley had to depart and head back for Muroc to write up the flight report, which had to be sent to Wright Field by Telex. At 6pm, the group headed off to Dick Frost’s house, where the drinking began in earnest. Chuck elected to go to Dick’s house on the beat up old motorcycle given to him by Pancho Barnes. At round 8 or 9 o’clock, they decided to head back to Chuck’s house. Chuck was in no fit state to drive, never mind ride a motorcycle (which had no headlight!).
Taking off at breakneck speed, Yeager tore off into the distance, leaving Frost & Hoover far behind. They came upon a tight right-hand bend and saw a big cloud of dust. The Air Forces newest hero was found on the ground with the motorcycle lying on top of him. Fearing the worst, Frost & Hoover pulled the ‘bike off Yeager and to their surprise, found him to not only be alive, but laughing away like a loon. He wasn’t even scratched! Yeager got to his feet, jumped back on the motorcycle again and took off for his home like a scaled cat. By the time Frost & Hoover pulled up at Chuck’s house, Yeager was in the kitchen fixing up another pitcher of martinis.
Not wishing to be crude, Chuck Yeager definitely had big balls. Imagine climbing down a ladder at 8,000 feet into a 250mph ice-cold slipstream, bending double and climbing into the little dark cockpit. You are about to be dropped from a B-29 in your little orange aircraft, which is little more than a flying bomb waiting to go off! You’re dropped from the bomber and heading for the unknown. More than half of the engineer’s involved in building and running the X-1 think you are doomed. They think your aircraft will come apart at Mach 1, no one knows what will happen. This you do with broken ribs. You prove them all wrong; it’s a piece of cake (you say). Chuck Yeager became a legend; did he ask for this? NO. All he wanted to do was fly the “hot planes”, as the “hottest pilot", Colonel Boyd assigned him some of the very choicest test programs, why? Because he knew he was the BEST instinctive pilot in the world.
The Only X-1 Ground Launch
Yeager made another 21 flights in the X-1 after the first supersonic flight. None of them were routine. But perhaps the most significant would be his flight of January 5, 1949. The Air Force were getting more than a touch “ticked off” at the Navy who had been taking cheap shots at the X-1. The Navy announced that their Douglas D-558-1 Skystreak was the first truly supersonic aircraft because it could take off from the ground under its own power (the D-558-1 only ever made one supersonic flight and that was only barely in control!).
Colonel Fred J. Ascani was sent to Edwards AFB by Colonel Albert Boyd to direct the ground launch project. The amount of fuel required was carefully calculated by Jackie “The Brain” Ridley. Firing all 4 rocket chambers simultaneously, the X-1 streaked off down the runway. After about 1500 feet, Yeager raised the nose at 200mph and the X-1 jumped into the air. The X-1 was accelerating so damn fast that when he flipped the gear handle up, the actuating rod snapped off and the wing flaps blew off. Only 80 seconds after ignition, the x-1 was at Mach 1.03 and 23,000 feet. Yeager set a time to climb record to 20,000 feet that would stand for some time.
In my correspondence with Major General Fred J. Ascani, he told me this not well-known addendum to the above flight – “The cockpit is flooded with inert nitrogen gas to keep any flames from propagating. And in the excitement on the take off roll, Chuck had forgotten to put his oxygen mask on. So the cockpit is filling obviously with unbreathable atmosphere (laughs) and I guess he barely recovered at 20,000 feet to put his oxygen mask on. It really took off fast and he landed it after getting that record. We wanted to see if it could be done and of course, as usual, Chuck Yeager got it done."
I’d like to thank General Ascani for sharing that anecdote with me.