It looked like nothing that had come before it. To compare it to the planes of World War II – with their propellers and sharp angles and guidewires and snub-nosed fuselages – is like comparing two entirely different species. Sleek, smooth and contoured, this thing looked like the future – and that’s exactly what the X-1 was. Seventy years ago this week, it rocketed through the sound barrier and into the history books, opening the way for America to reach beyond the earth.
Even today, in the age of the B-2 and F-22, the X-1 looks futuristic. The imagery of it breaking loose from the bomb bay of a B-29 and then screaming away makes the X-1 seem more like a missile – or better said, a bullet – than a plane.
Whatever you call it – jet-plane, rocket, missile, bullet or all of the above – we can trace a line from that moment 70 Octobers ago, when the X-1 streaked across the Mojave Desert sky, to the X-15 rocket-plane, to Mercury and Gemini, to Apollo and the moon and the Space Shuttle, to the otherworldly SR-71 and the hypersonic scramjets that will shape tomorrow.
The man who flew the X-1 into the history books was – and still is – as unique as the plane he piloted. Born in the tiny West Virginia town of Myra, Charles Elwood “Chuck” Yeager has lived an amazing – and quintessentially American – life.
Three months before Pearl Harbor, Yeager enlisted in the Army Air Corps not as a high-flying daredevil pilot, but as a mechanic. He found his way from engines into the cockpit and earned his wings in 1943. (Asked years later about the costs of learning to fly, he wryly responded, “Uncle Sam will pay to teach you.”)
Yeager was more than a natural; he was a phenom. “Chuck became the yardstick by which we could measure the rest,” a member of Yeager’s P-39 squadron later recalled. “Yeager could fly. Right from the start.”
His squadron mates weren’t the only ones who took notice. None other than Jimmy Doolittle promoted Yeager to second lieutenant, and then to captain during World War II.
Yeager shot down 13 German planes during the war, including two German ME-262 jet-powered fighters – no small feat given that he was flying a propeller-driven plane. Yeager himself was shot down over France, and later rescued by the French Resistance.
He flew more than 360 different military planes over the years (including a captured Russian MiG during the Korean War), and deployed to Europe (during World War II), Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Pakistan and West Germany (during the Cold War). He trained Gemini, Mercury and Apollo astronauts and served as the first commandant of the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School. He also rose to the rank of brigadier general, drove the pace car in the Indianapolis 500 and played a cameo role in the 1983 film “The Right Stuff”. “Besides playing Fred in ‘The Right Stuff’,” Yeager revealed in 2013, “I flew many of the planes for the movie.”
This was only appropriate given that the movie – and the book on which it was based – were partly about him. Indeed, Yeager is best known for what he did on Oct. 14, 1947, when he piloted his bright-orange “Glamorous Glennis” X-1 – named after his now-deceased first wife – beyond the sound barrier. He hit Mach 1.06 and reached 43,000 feet (more than eight miles high), making Yeager the first person to break the sound barrier in level flight. Yeager later eclipsed Mach 2 in an X-1A. Yeager and his supersonic flights are a thread that runs through “The Right Stuff."
However, the world wouldn’t know what Yeager had accomplished for a while. As a NASA history explains, “Air Force officials designated the flight and all data as Top Secret ... Not until December 1947 would word leak of the achievement, and it was not until March 1948 that the U.S. Air Force officially confirmed the achievement.”
Yeager, the mechanic-turned-pilot-turned-rocketman, had a unique mix of gut-level fearlessness (chasing the sound barrier was a dangerous and deadly business), raw talent, technical insight, and the ability to explain to technicians and engineers how a plane felt and reacted. But don’t take my word for it.
“We had several other outstanding pilots to choose from, but none of them could quite match his skill in a cockpit or his coolness under pressure,” Maj. Gen. Albert Boyd said after Yeager was selected to pilot the X-1.
Dick Frost, a flight test engineer on the X-1 program, called Yeager “completely nerveless.”
“Yeager flies an airplane as if he is welded to it – as if he is an integral part of it,” Maj. Gen. Fred Ascani said.
“Chuck Yeager doesn’t just fly an airplane – any airplane – better than anyone else ... Chuck Yeager communicates with the airplane, and then he is able to relate his conversation and priceless information – much of it absolutely unobtainable with even the most advanced and sophisticated instrumentation – to the engineers and other pilots,” adds Maj. Gen. Joe Engle, who served as an Air Force test pilot, NASA astronaut and Space Shuttle commander.
As Yeager matter-of-factly explained in 1988, “I see things that few people do.”
What do Yeager and his now-antique airplane have to do with the here and now? More than we might notice at first glance.
First, the X-1 reminds us that developing the tools to defend America’s interests and way of life takes time and costs money. (And make no mistake, mastering supersonic flight was very much about defending America.) The X-1 program “lasted from 1946 to 1958, developed seven airframes (and) flew 236 test flights,” as Edie Williams and Alan Shaffer explain in a recent issue of Joint Force Quarterly. After the X-1 pushed the envelope of speed further than ever before, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (forerunner to NASA) approved a budget of $40 million for the X-15 program, “an enormous budget for a project in the early 1950s,” as Robert White and Jack Summers explained in their book “Higher and Faster: Memoir of a Pioneering Air Force Test Pilot.”
Second, with some saying the American dream is a myth, Yeager’s only-in-America story is a reminder that America is a place where a mechanic with a high-school education can become a general, where the right mix of hard work and God-given talent can change the world, where free people can pursue what they define as happiness – and soar.
Third, 21st-century America must not rest on its laurels or be content with the status quo. Fixated on their laptops, iPhones and tablets, too many Americans have literally lowered their sights, narrowed their focus and shifted their gaze from the heavens to their handhelds.
The story of what the X-1, its designers and its most-famous pilot accomplished in 1947 serves as a reminder that great achievements require great effort, great collaboration, sometimes even great risk and great sacrifice. The men and women of the X-1 program worked hard, worked together, dreamed big and took risks – and America was better for it.