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Explained: Who was Chuck Yeager, the first person to break the sound barrier?

Chuck Yeager became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound – referred to as breaking the “sound barrier” – on October 14, 1947.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: December 9, 2020 8:47:31 am
Who was Chuck Yeager, the first person to break the sound barrier?Yeager, who was a US Air Force Captain at the time, reached a speed of 1,127 km per hour at an altitude of 13,000 metres.

Charles Elwood “Chuck” Yeager, the US test pilot of World War II who was the first pilot to break the sound barrier, died at the age of 97 on December 8. His accomplishment launched the era of supersonic flight.

His wife, Victoria Yeager, announced his death on Twitter through his account, “…It is w/ profound sorrow, I must tell you that my life love General Chuck Yeager passed just before 9pm ET. An incredible life well lived, America’s greatest Pilot, & a legacy of strength, adventure, & patriotism will be remembered forever.”

Who was Chuck Yeager?

Yeager was born on February 13, 1923, in Myra, West Virginia to Albert Hal Yeager and Susie Mae Yeager. His family moved to Hamlin when he was five. In his memoir, Yeager wrote that he was a preschooler then and Hamlin, which had a population of about 400, felt like a “big city” to him. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps in September 1941, serving as crew chief until he was selected for pilot training under the flying sergeant program in July 1942.

In a statement released on the day of death, NASA’s Administrator Jim Bridenstine said, “Among many firsts in more than 60 years in aviation, Chuck was the first man to fly at the speed of sound, and his achievements rival any of our greatest firsts in space. Not content to rest on his laurels, he went on to break his own record and travel at Mach 2.44. But even before that he was serving his country heroically in World War II. Long after he became a legend in his own time, he continued to serve his country through the military and later in his ongoing work to test new aircraft.”

What did he do?

Yeager became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound – referred to as breaking the “sound barrier” – on October 14, 1947 aboard the rocket-powered Bell X-1 aircraft that was painted orange and resembled a 50-caliber machine gun bullet. Yeager called it the “Glamorous Glennis” after his first wife.

Yeager, who was a US Air Force Captain at the time, reached a speed of 1,127 km per hour at an altitude of 13,000 metres. This information wasn’t declassified until June 1948 after which he earned the moniker of “The Fastest Man Alive” among many others. He was awarded the 1947 Collier Trophy alongside John Stack and Bell Aircraft Corporation President Lawrence Bell for their research accomplishments in faster-than-sound flight.

In the words accompanying the trophy, Yeager’s achievement was compared to that of the Wright Brothers, “This is an epochal achievement in the history of world aviation–the greatest since the first successful flight of the original Wright Brothers’ airplane, forty-five years ago”.

In his book, “From Engineering Science to Big Science: The NACA and NASA Collier Trophy Research Project Winners”, John D. Anderson, Jr. notes that on the morning of October 14, 1947, Yeager was in pain from two broken ribs that he incurred as a result of a horseback riding accident, but did not disclose this to anyone except his close friend.

The phrase “sound barrier” was first used by the British aerodynamicist WF Hilton in 1935, according to NASA. Sound barrier simply means the increase in an airplane’s wing’s resistance to high speeds as it approaches the speed of sound.

What happened on October 14, 1947?

The Bell X-1 was a research vehicle that was installed in the bomb bay of a four-engine B-29 bomber from World War II. As per the account of the day narrated by Anderson Jr., on October 14, 1947, the B-29 took off and climbed an altitude of 20,000 feet at 10 am. As it passed an altitude of 5000 feet, Yeager, “struggled into the cockpit of the X-1” and at 10:26 am, at a speed of about 400 km per hour, the X-1 dropped free from the bomb bay of the B-29, after which, “Yeager fired his Reaction Motors XLR-11 rocket engine and, powered by 6,000 pounds of thrust, the sleek airplane accelerated and climbed rapidly.”

As the aircraft reached a velocity of over 1,126 km per hour and an altitude of 43,000 feet, the flight was smooth and no loss of control was reported as some engineers had feared. It was precisely at this moment that Yeager became the first person to have broken the sound barrier and the X-1 became the “first successful supersonic airplane in the history of flight”.

In his autobiography titled “Yeager”, he wrote while mentioning another mission aboard the Bell X-1, “I always had butterflies before being dropped from the belly of the B-29 mother ship, but my tensions this day were minor compared to the sound barrier mission, when I was scared, knowing that many of my colleagues thought I was doomed to be blasted to pieces by an invisible brick wall in the sky.”

The aircraft was donated to Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in 1950.📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram

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