How the Bell X-1 Ushered in the Supersonic Age | At the Smithsonian


Opener Bell X1

The Bell X-1, a marvel of form and function.
Photo illustration by Cade Martin

It was arguably the most important flight since Kitty Hawk, and the aircraft was a perfection in form and function. At 30 feet 9 inches long, 10 feet 8½ inches tall and 28 feet from wing tip to razor wing tip, the Bell X-1 looked exactly as it inspired its designers: a .50 caliber bullet. Square-jawed, lean and handsome, with a reassuringly laconic West Virginia train tone, US Air Force Capt. Chuck Yeager sat in the cockpit as the original pilot, the epitome of the right stuff. On that bright, brisk morning near Rogers Dry Lake in Southern California, October 14, 1947, he was preparing to fly faster than the speed of sound for the first time in recorded history.

Chuck Yeager

Chuck Yeager with the Bell X-1 in 1947.

US Air Force

Yeager, a 24-year-old ace fighter pilot turned pioneering test pilot, operated the most advanced aeronautical science package ever built. Anything that wasn’t Yeager in his tiny cockpit was fuel or wiring or instrumentation. Thousands of pounds of it, all hurled forward in a deafening frenzy by a 6,000-pound rocket engine. The program had conducted dozens of preparatory flights before Yeager decreased its gas forward in history. Larry Bell, head of Bell Aircraft, its chief designer Robert Woods, Ezra Kotcher, then an Army major, and John Stack, a research scientist with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), had worked on supersonic flight for years; A particular challenge was determining how to fly through the shocks of the transonic zone, the borderline between subsonic and supersonic speeds, where the air itself is the enemy, pressing against the plane’s skin and where the “sound barrier” should go be. The X-1, a joint project of NACA and the US Army Air Forces, built by Bell Aircraft of Buffalo, New York, reached a speed of 700 miles per hour, Mach 1.06, at an altitude of 43,000 feet on that bright day .

This wasn’t a headline-grabbing pleasure ride; it was top secret research. But in December 1947, newspapers and magazines had the story – and the National Aeronautic Association awarded Bell, Stack and Yeager that year’s Collier Trophy, one of the highest awards in aviation.

After the X-1 made headlines, Hollywood wanted to give audiences a front-row seat at the supersonic limit. In fact, the last flight of the X-1 in 1950 was a cameo in Howard Hughes’ jet pilot starring John Wayne and Janet Leigh, which hit theaters (with a bang) in 1957.

In the cockpit of the Bell X-1

In the cockpit of the Bell X-1

Eric Long/NASM

The X-1 landed at the Smithsonian in 1950. In presenting the plane to Alexander Wetmore, then Secretary of the Smithsonian, Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt Vandenberg said Yeager’s flight that day in 1947 marked “the end of the first great period of the air ages and the beginning of the second.” In moments, the subsonic period became history and the supersonic period was born.” Yeager retired from the armed forces as a general in 1975, visiting his old Smithsonian ship whenever he could on the anniversary of their signature flight. Published after Tom Wolfe The right stuff in 1979 and the big-budget film adaptation in 1983, these visits became Rockstar Q&A. Crowds filled the National Air and Space Museum’s Samuel P. Langley Theater and flocked to the planetarium, and then 400 or 500 or 600 fans lined up for autographs. To the curators’ amazement, Yeager, who always had to be the fastest, was able to sign 500 autographs in less than 30 minutes. Today, visitors can view the X-1 at the museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.

Despite early hopes, supersonic civil aircraft like the Concorde proved economically unsustainable: high fuel and maintenance costs and too much noise compared to subsonic flight. But today, several start-ups are trying again.

Post-war notions of supersonic flight always had a strong appeal when a machine like the X-1 promised something like freedom or flight: an imaginary life so fast and so high and so clean that nothing evil could ever catch us again. But the unspoken promise of any technology is what it fails to deliver: transcendence.

Non-military flight eventually turned into commercial tedium, a series of shoeless enclosures leading to a subsonic middle seat, subpar romantic comedy and a lost suitcase. Global air travel is a marvel when you think about it. But nobody does. Instead, we ourselves made the angels ordinary. And when there are no more firsts, we are left with nothing but our contempt for the familiar. Faster than a rocket, the future becomes the past.

But once, long ago, on a blue October morning beneath the impossible vaults of the sky, one of us rose and flew faster than the roar of our own hopes, and for a moment anything seemed possible.

The nose of the Bell X-1, shaped like a .50 caliber bullet.

The nose of the Bell X-1, shaped like a .50 caliber bullet.

Cade Martin