Chasing That Demon

Fear crouched in the deep recesses of the mind–present, accounted for, but well controlled. With the fueling and mating procedures completed, I walked back out to the B-29 and stooped low to make a last-minute check of the X-1's instrumentation. My helmet and oxygen mask were well secured behind the seat, I jogged to the boarding ladder and started climbing. Then there was the long wait as the B-29's engines fired, the big bird began its takeoff roll and lumbered up to the drop altitude. I sat on a metal box inside the plane, ignoring my safety belt against the regulations. At 5000 ft., I nudged Ridley and said, "Let's go." We walked back to the bomb bay hatch and strode through. There was the little X-1, dangling in all that wind and cold and thinning air. Every move was torturous at this altitude. Getting into the X-1 on a good day was tiring enough. But I struggled through, wangled the hatch closed with the help of a 10-in. piece of broomhandle I'd fashioned for the purpose (because of the limits imposed by my broken ribs) and continued checking the X-1's pressurization, fuel delivery and controls.

Richard Frost, Bell project engineer, was flying low chase that morning, and Lt. Bob Hoover was flying high chase well ahead of the B-29, both in Lockheed P-80s. In the standard routine, Frost would pull into a slight climb as I lighted the first chamber, aiming for Hoover's P-80 about 10 miles ahead. I would try to pass Hoover at relatively close range as the fuel supply depleted, and he'd follow me down for an unpowered landing on the lakebed.

Everything was set inside X-1 as Cardenas started the countdown. Frost assumed his position and the mighty crack from the cable release hurled the X-1 into the abyss. I fired chamber No. 4, then No. 2, then shut off No. 4 and fired No. 3, then shut off No. 2 and fired No. 1. The X-1 began racing toward the heavens, leaving the B-29 and the P-80 far behind. I then ignited chambers No. 2 and No. 4, and under a full 6000 pounds of thrust, the little rocket plane accelerated instantly, leaving a contrail of fire and exhaust. From .83 Mach to .92 Mach, I was busily engaged testing stabilizer effectiveness. The rudder and elevator lost their grip on the thinning air, but the stabilizer still proved effective, even as speed increased to .95 Mach. At 35,000 ft., I shut down two of the chambers and continued to climb on the remaining two. We were really hauling! I was excited and pleased, but the flight report I later filed maintained that outward cool: "With the stabilizer setting at 2 degrees, the speed was allowed to increase to approximately .95 to .96 Mach number. The airplane was allowed to continue to accelerate until an indication of .965 on the cockpit Machmeter was obtained. At this indication, the meter momentarily stopped and then jumped up to 1.06, and the hesitation was assumed to be caused by the effect of shock waves on the static source."

I had flown at supersonic speeds for 18 seconds. There was no buffet, no jolt, no shock. Above all, no brick wall to smash into. I was alive.

And although it was never entered in the pilot report, the casualness of invading a piece of space no man had ever visited was best reflected in the radio chatter. I had to tell somebody, anybody, that we'd busted straight through the sound barrier. But transmissions were restricted. "Hey Ridley!" I called. "Make another note. There's something wrong with this Machmeter. It's gone completely screwy!"

"If it is, we'll fix it," Ridley replied, catching my drift. "But personally, I think you're seeing things."

Gen. Chuck Yeager



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