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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We know for certain that the number one XP-86 Sabre prototype did fly faster than the speed of sound, to Mach 1.02 and 1.04, as measured on the Muroc radar theodolite, on the two flights of November 13, 1947. Anecdotally, we know Welch was taking the Sabre supersonic as early as November 3, according to his logbook. But the reason for conducting those high-Mach exploratory flights in the first place was that Welch had complained to Ed Horkey about funny jumps in his airspeed indicator before any “Hi-Mach No.” flights were scheduled. That would mean that on one or more of the Sabre flights in October, a supersonic excursion took place. For those who insist “Welch did it first,” this would have had to have been on October 1, or on the fourth flight, prior to 10:30 a.m. Pacific time on October 14. Supporting the notion that Welch did in fact become the first Mach buster on October 1 is Jan Welch’s call to her mother on October 10 or 11 to report the birth of a son on the 9th, and incidentally to announce the hush-hush fact that Welch had gone supersonic. Jimmy Williams, Jan’s younger brother remembered the call: His mother couldn’t tell whether Jan was more pleased with the new baby or Welch’s latest aerial exploit. Also attesting to the belief that Welch did it before Yeager are the affirmation of Bud Poage, Bob Cadick, Joe Swing, several of Pancho’s girls, and scores of others.

Could anyone believe that in the supersonic sweepstakes a competent but wholly apolitical company could mount a meaningful challenge to the massively supported--both technically and politically—orange rocketship? What could be worse form than to rain on their parade, to cop their prize with a loud ba-boom, and then to shrug it all off as just another of the incidental challenges that must be met and mastered en route to building better fighters? For the truly dedicated, it’s not so hard to say “Leave the laurels to those who need and want them most, we have a job to do,” then laugh all the way to Pancho’s to needle the old gal about betting on the wrong contender.

This article first appeared in the December 1998/January 1999 issue of Air & Space.

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