Mach Match

Did an XP-86 beat Yeager to the punch?

The North American XP-86 Sabre, in flight over the Mojave Desert. Was it the first to break the so-called sound barrier? (USAF. NASM photo no. A-38492-C)
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Greene couldn’t contain himself. “By 30,000 feet you’re supersonic.”

“What’s the risk?”

Greene shook his head. “We really don’t know. Our best guess is that it’s not very great.”

“My guess is virtually zero,” Welch said. He described a recent visit to New Mexico, where he’d spent the night just south of the Army’s White Sands Missile Test Range. Another group of experimenters there were launching V-2 missiles brought from Germany. Welch talked to several men who had witnessed some launches, and they told him about the blasts of shock waves that hit the mountain top about 30 seconds after each V-2 had taken off. “A big ba-boom just like von Kármán predicted,” Welch said. “Hell, that V-2 is bigger than the Sabre, or the X-1 for that matter, and it slides through the so-called sonic wall like a surfer riding a big wave.” Welch thought that too big a deal was being made over faster-than-sound flights, a theory he intended to test.

Welch came to Muroc in September and stayed at his usual hangout, Pancho Barnes’ Fly Inn, later to be named the Happy Bottom Riding Club. It comprised some 400 acres bordering Muroc Field on the south. In addition to rooms, there were suites, a restaurant, a bar, a swimming pool, riding stables, and airsrip. Many of the North American crew would show up—flight test supervisor Roy Ferren and flight test mechanic Bob Cadick—as well as members of the X-1 team: NACA leader Walt Williams, Jack Ridley, Chuck Yeager, and Bell project engineer Dick Frost. The usual bevy of Pancho’d down-on-their-luck ladies added their own leaven of lust and luster in more or less equal measure. Pancho herself was unique. Born wealthy of distinguished forebears, she chose what might be called today an alternative lifestyle. Her friends included Jimmy Doolittle, Chuck Yeager, Buzz Aldrin, and many of the Hollywood set, for whom she had done stunt flying in the early days of aviation films. Her conversation was punctuated with obscenities that would make a boatswain’s mate blush.

Among the ladies at Pancho’s, Welch had formed a special relationship with one Millie Palmer. Palmer was quieter and more serious than most of the other girls. When Welch and Palmer had dinner together at Pancho’s, he drank less and got to bed earlier.

On Monday evening, September 29, after some XP-86 taxi tests, Welch was at Pancho’s having dinner with Palmer. He was quietly pleased at how well the first outing had gone. He noted that the X-1 crowd looked pretty glum. The little rocketship hadn’t flown in more than two weeks. Palmer reported the rumor that Ridley was working on giving Yeager more pitch control through the trim mechanism. “It looks as though Wednesday is my big chance,” Welch told Palmer. “A supersonic dive is for sure not on the flight card for the first flight, so I’ll have to do it without recording data. It’s agreed that I’ll pull up the landing gear, just to get a feel for how it flies in the clean condition. Without making a record in the usual way, you’ll have to be my data bank. If on Wednesday morning you hear a sharp boom like a clap of thunder, be sure and write it down—what it sounded like, what time, reaction from others, stuff like that.”

The first flight of the XP-86 did indeed take place on Wednesday, October 1. Welch climbed with full power to 10,000 feet above sea level, which was 7,700 feet above the Mojave Desert floor. On his wing was North American engineering test pilot Bob Chilton in a P-82 Twin Mustang. The right cockpit of the dual-fuselage fighter was occupied by a cameraman.

In a little more than 10 minutes, Welch had reach 35,000 feet. Leveling out, he watch the indicated airspeed climb to 320 knots. He estimated that should be Mach 0.90. He had been heading east and was just passing over the El Mirage dry lake. Rolling into a 40-degree dive, he turned to the west. His aircraft was pointing at Pancho’s hacienda, several miles south of Rogers Dry Lake. The airspeed indicator seemed to be stuck at about 350 knots, but the Sabre was behaving just fine. At 29,000 feet there was a little wing roll. Correcting the roll, Welch pushed into a steeper dive. The airspeed indicator suddenly jumped to 410 knots and continued to rise. At 25,000 feet he brought the Sabre back to level flight and reduced power. The wing rocked again and the airspeed jumped from nearly 450 back to 390. Welch pulled up into a barrel roll to the left followed by one to the right, not unlike the victory rolls used in the recent war by returned fighter pilots to let their crews know they had bagged an enemy aircraft.

Before he left for Los Angeles to brief the Sabre project people, Welch called Palmer, who reported that a big ba-boom had nearly bounced her out of bed. She added that Pancho, a big Yeager supporter, had heard it too but attributed it to some mining operation up in the hills.

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