Could an aeroplane stand up to the stresses of flying faster than the speed of sound? Could a man, for that matter?
American fighter ace Charles ‘Chuck’ Yeager was determined to prove that they could. He volunteered to fly a ‘rocket plane’ – the Bell X-1 – faster than anyone had ever done before. And he did it with two broken ribs.
Two days before the big flight, Yeager had been thrown from his horse. Fearing he would be banned from flying, he hid his injuries, telling only the flight engineer, Jack Ridley. Ridley fashioned a special handle from a broomstick allowing Yeager to pull the cockpit door shut and lock it.
On 14 October 1947, a B-29 Superfortress took off, carrying Chuck Yeager and the X-1, which Yeager had named ‘Glamorous Glennis’ after his wife. Once the bomber had reached 23,000 feet, the X-1, with Yeager at the controls, was released.
Yeager fired all four engine chambers and the X-1 roared to life, climbed to 43,000 feet, and accelerated to Mach 1.06. Chuck Yeager became officially the first person to break the sound barrier.
The press went wild once news of the daring feat had been declassified the following summer. Yeager was celebrated as “the fastest man alive” and was awarded several prizes for the achievement.
Five years later, Yeager served as the wingman for ‘the fastest woman alive’, when Jackie Cochran flew faster than the speed of sound in 1953.
Today, the X-1 is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. Chuck Yeager, aged 91, still lives under the same Californian sky in which he flew into history.