Although this blog is normally reserved for Rufus’ rants, I decided to commandeer the keyboard for a posting that, due to timing, merits consideration.
This past Sunday, 14 October, 2012, Felix Baumgartner did something remarkable. Stepping from the gondola of a helium-filled balloon at more than 120,000 feet, he fell to earth exceeding, at one point, 800 miles per hour and became the first person to travel at (and survive) supersonic (in excess of Mach 1) speeds without the aid of an aircraft. He parachuted to a stand-up landing near Roswell, New Mexico.
Coincidentally, that same day 89 year old Chuck Yeager was allowed to fly in an Air Force fighter to commemorate the anniversary of his Mach 1 flight in the X-1; supposedly the first.
I say supposedly because there is more than sufficient reason to believe that Yeager was, in fact, not the first pilot to exceed Mach 1.
Up front and for the record, except for being a friend of Slick Goodlin’s, I have no dog in this fight and, although Yeager and I are acquaintances and his well known penchant for both his animus of arrogance and condescension to his peers are notorious, I have no bone to pick with him either. I’ve stated quite clearly in both my books, Mighty Hands & Mr. MiG, the story of our relationship including references to what I will mention here.
In his book, Aces Wild – The Race for Mach 1, Al Blackburn makes the case, as the renowned Walter J. Boyne states in his review of the book, “. . . for the very real possibility that George “Wheaties” Welch went supersonic in the XP-86 before Chuck Yeager . . .”.
The question that begs to be asked is, why then did Yeager get the credit?
First, as to his bona fides, Blackburn is a Naval Academy graduate and holds a Masters degree in Aeronautical Engineering from MIT. He was also a Navy test pilot so his background makes him imminently qualified to render an opinion. Based upon his own experience there and with substantiation from both documentary evidence and personal interviews of others (such as Dick Frost – test pilot for Bell Aircraft and flight test manager at Muroc for the X series aircraft) who were also involved with the programs to exceed the speed of sound back in the mid-forties, Blackburn assembled a series of facts so conclusive that one must wonder how the Yeager myth has been allowed to be perpetuated for so many years.
The answer to the question is, sadly (as has been the case and become the norm), the political arena and military industrial complex are ripe for corruption because of the vast amounts of money involved.
Here are but two of Blackburn’s unequivocal historic facts involving supersonic flight prior to 14 October, 1947:
On 5 February, 1947, Bell test pilot Slick Goodlin was flying the number two X-1 demonstrating structural integrity for the Army. In a dive reaching .89 Mach, he intentionally subjected the aircraft to a nearly 9G pull and then pushed sharply to zero G. The sharp “crack” subsequently heard on the ground by the observers was the result of air passing over the wing accelerating beyond Mach 1. That was, quite possibly, the first supersonic flight of an aircraft.
Even more profound is the evidence surrounding the North American XP-86 (test bed for the F-86 Sabre) flights of George Welch.
A 3-way taffy pull existed between Bell, NACA (forerunner to NASA) and the “new” Air Force (of course, formerly the Army Air Corps). Each wanted control over the X-1 program believing that their expertise and motives were superior.
Meanwhile, North American was proceeding with test flights of their prototype fighter during which Welch, as early as October 1st, routinely produced sonic booms during dives directed at various ground locations including Pancho Barnes’ bar.
None of the XP-86 prototypes had a Mach meter installed during their early flights so the only signal to the pilot (Welch) that the jet was supersonic was the hang up, then jump in the indicated airspeed (in knots). This occurred at various airspeeds depending upon the altitude and temperature at which Mach 1 was exceeded.
Welch considered, “The government – Air Force, NACA, the taxpayer – has spent a bunch of bucks on this Bell X-1 rocket ship for the sole purpose of exploring the challenge of going supersonic with a man along.” (The German V-2 rocket had already proven that Mach 1 and greater speeds were viable.) “Of course, the V-2s have demonstrated thousands of times that it’s really no big deal. They may not carry a man along but they are a lot bigger and twice the weight of the X-1. Even so, suppose a new fighter comes along, say a Sabre, which is the greatest fighter of the decade, carries six guns and bombs and makes the United States numero uno in the world of air combat. And incidentally this Sabre can also take its pilot supersonic and does it even before the supposedly advanced-technology rocket ship. Or even a day or two later, or a week or two later for God’s sake. It still makes the government look like a bunch of spendthrift idiots.”
Since both projects (the Bell X-1 and North American XP-86) were classified as secret, the government could keep the lid on the XP-86 supersonic flights and then selectively release the information.
And, very likely, that is exactly what happened.
The XP-86’s first supersonic flight was officially acknowledged as 13 November, 1947 – 30 days after Yeager and the X-1.
Is it plausible that the supersonic technology garnered by the X-1 program was adapted to the aerodynamic characteristics of the XP-86 in less than a month?
As Blackburn writes, “. . . the irrelevance of it all is reflected in the military’s indifference to the challenge of extending the supersonic capabilities of manned aircraft.” Now, the focus is primarily on stealth.
Reflect that the captain of the Concorde, the now retired supersonic veteran of scheduled Atlantic crossings at Mach 2, apprised his passengers as they accelerated beyond Mach 1, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have just exceeded the speed of sound, the biggest non-event in aviation history.”
Many of us have “flung (our) eager craft through footless halls of air” beyond the speed of sound . . . but only Felix has done it without one.