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.