Did an XP-86 beat Yeager to the punch?
- By Al Blackburn
- Air & Space magazine, January 1999
USAF. NASM photo no. A-38492-C
(Page 2 of 6)
Welch knew that the engineers had carefully reviewed the analytical data and wind tunnel test results the Germans had obtained from their swept-wing designs, and that North American had also run its own wind tunnel tests. Storms told him that they were almost certain that top speed at altitude would be better than Mach 0.9 in level flight. He explained to Welch that at that Mach number, the center of lift would start to move aft on the wing and that he would have to pull back on the stick and start trimming…but very carefully. Changing the angle of the whole stabilizer at that speed and a changing Mach number could get pretty tricky.
“So I’m doing nine-tenths at, say, 35,000 feet and push the nose over into a 25- to 30-degree dive. What then?” Welch asked the designers.
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.