If someone would have told us, more than 70 years ago, that could travel faster than the speed of sound, we’d nod our heads in disbelief and laugh. I mean, think about it. - Breaking the sound barrier is as mind-boggling as superman’s ability to defy gravity. But what if I told you, that a man achieved the impossible right before the 1950s? So, who is this guy? How did he manage to travel faster than the speed of sound? Let’s take a short flight to the past and find out.
The year was 1923. The legend named Chuck Yeager was born. It was the time when Jazz was flourishing, and a decade of prosperity was starting in America. Chuck grew up in a small town in West Virginia called Hamlin and he was the second born son of Susie Yeager and Albert Yeager. He had a very peaceful upbringing, and he sure enjoyed being active and being curious. When he wasn’t playing out in the woods, he’d spend his time next to his grandpa learning how to fish and hunt. Chuck was also a good student, but school wasn’t his cup of tea. He enjoyed spending his time outdoors learning all the ins and outs of fishing and hunting. But he excelled in a few things that would serve him well in his career. He was good at math, physical activity and manual dexterity. His dad owned a natural gas drilling business in Hamlin. There, Chuck developed a passion for generators, pumps and pressure regulators. He wanted to learn everything about them, and he achieved it. During his teenage years, he was able to fix generators, troubleshoot complicated systems and even repair pickup trucks that his dad used.
In 1941, Chuck graduated from school; and in September of that year he enrolled in the Army Air Corps. A choice that would change his life forever. By July of 1942, he was picked to become an air force pilot, and his flight training had begun. His discipline stood out and that gained him a lot of recognition from his peers. He had the whole flying package and when his training started, he took off literally and figuratively speaking. His eyesight was 20/10 which was remarkable. He was great with coordination and he could carry out any task smoothly without any difficulty. As if, those weren’t enough, he was also able to stay calm and focus on his work in stressful situations – which is a must for pilots.
All of these positive traits, alongside his competitive nature, and his background in machinery attracted the attention of his instructors. In March of 1943 he finally got his wings to fly away. Within a year he had managed to fly more than 270 hours around Europe. There, his experience would prove invaluable for his career. In just a few years he’d be able to travel faster than the speed of sound. And, that wasn’t an easy task either. But I am getting ahead of myself.
First, let’s take a deep dive into physics and see what the sound barrier is. Scientifically speaking, the sound barrier is a sudden rise in aerodynamic force that happens when an aircraft approached the speed of sound. – Um, what? Let me simplify it for you. Imagine yourself seating in your room watching YouTube… I mean studying. Now, the air all around you is made up of molecules. When you move through the air, all those molecules rush to get out of your way. Now imagine you are flying an aircraft at supersonic speeds. When those air molecules can’t get out of your way fast enough, they compress in front of your plane. That compressibility surrounds the problem of breaking the sound barrier.
The compressibility of molecules had been an issue for physicists before airplanes even existed. However, the molecule compressibility was always linked to the speed of sound, and that is what scientists were studying. They were looking at bullets leaving guns that had achieved surpassing the speed of sound. When physicists were able to capture their first photo of a bullet traveling in super-sonic speeds, they were able to see shock-waves both at the front and at the back of bullet. That was when they were able to see the compressibility of those molecules.
While the world of aviation was taking off, he intended; engineers were trying to figure out a way to build airplanes that could approach the speed of sound without breaking into pieces. That happened when manufacturers noticed that the tips of the propeller blades were travelling faster than the speed of sound while the aircraft didn’t. When those blades were moving at supersonic speeds, they were also meeting resistance from the compressed air molecules. So, engineers had to come up with something that would allow aircrafts to fly higher and faster. The problem got even more noticeable, when jet aircrafts entered the market and replaced propeller planes in the 1940s. They saw that as the jets were flying faster, the air over their wings reached supersonic speeds before the air traveling below their wings. That meant that the shock-waves building up could rip the plane into pieces.
The speed of sound is Mach 1, which is equivalent to 761 miles per hour. But even at Mach 0.8 (613 mph) the shock waves that were building up, were still very dangerous for the aircraft. So, scientists, manufactures and engineers alike, put their thinking caps on; and started designing a new airplane that could travel faster than the speed of sound, without falling apart. And that was when the X-1 came to life. And let me tell you, a lot of thought went into it. It was built in 1945 by Bell Aircraft and it was designed to resemble a bullet. Scientists believed that since a bullet can reach the sound barrier, designing something to replicate it, would help them in their project. The plane had short wings, it was equipped with a rocket engine and most of the plane’s body was filled up with fuel. That was a sure-fire way to make it reach supersonic speeds.
The X-1 had only one mission – to break the sound barrier. So, it had to retain all its fuel in order to make the speed run and travel faster than the sound. It was designed to be launched from the bomb bay of a b-26 Bomber. That airplane would be responsible for carrying the X-1 to the altitude it needs. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
In 1945 the X-1 archetype performed it first gliding trip without using any power. It did not have an engine, so it was just released from the mother-ship while it was attached to it by a string. But, towards the end of 1946 another x-1 was built. This one had all the magic – the rocket engine and the fuel. The only thing it was missing was a brave pilot. The man for the job was Chalmers Goodlin, an excellent pilot who worked for the Canadian Air force. But just as they were about to seal the deal, Chalmers wanted 150,000 bucks to make that flight. On top of that, he also asked to get paid every minute that the aircraft spent travelling above Mach 0.85. Of course, the Bell Air force Corporation declined, and Goodlin lost his chance to fly the X-1. But, the company, didn’t not lose any hope; since there were 8 more people lined up for the job. Among them was our buddy Chuck Yeager. He was the least experienced at the time, but his reputation preceded him. His knowledge and confidence on how to work everything in the cockpit made him known to everyone at the Edwards Air force Space. And, he was given the chance to fly the X-1.
The day had finally come. It was on October 14th, 1947, right after 10:30 in the morning. Chuck courageously boarded the mother ship, and at around 20,000 feet the X-1 fell from the B-29. Just as the X-1 was released, he placed the aircraft into a direction where its nose was facing downward and lit all 4 barrels of the rocket engine. When he hit Mach 0.8, he started to climb. That was when he shut down two of the rocket barrels to see if the aircraft was still accelerating above Mach 0.8. When he reached 42,000 feet, Chuck re-lit the two rocket barrels that he had just shut down, and there it was.
The aircraft continued accelerating and the Mach meter was moving from 0.8, to 0.9, to 1.02 and finally reaching 1.06. Chuck achieved the impossible. He had broken the sound barrier and traveled faster than the speed of sound. Granted, he had his ups and downs during his training. He had a few near misses when he was testing the aircraft, but in the end he succeeded. In December of 1953, Yeager was piloting the X-1A – which was an aircraft designed to surpass the Mach 2 level in flight. But this time, things didn’t go as planned. While he was climbing at 76,000 feet and at Mach 1.9, he pushed the aircraft to its limits. He reached Mach 2.44 which is 1650 miles per hour; but then the unexpected happened.
Yeager lost control of the plane and it began rolling, yawing and pitching all at the same time. It dropped 51,000 feet in just a few seconds. What happened next was a true miracle. Chuck had managed to re-gain control of the aircraft at 29,000 feet. There he was able to prove his expertise when he landed the aircraft without any issues. That’s when he got awarded with the Distinguished Service medal from the military in 1954.
But you see Chuck is a restless spirit. In 2012 and at 89 years old, just 65 years after breaking the Sound Barrier, Chuck did it again. He was riding a McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle and he hid the mind-boggling 1.3 Mach like a true aviation champion. Would you guys like to experience traveling faster than the speed of sound? What do you think happened when you reach Mach 3? Don’t go traveling faster than sound just yet - stay on the Bright Side of life!