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 4 of 6)
On October 9, Welch’s wife delivered a baby boy. When she called her mother to announce the birth, she also dropped the news of another blessed event. The new dad had days earlier made aviation history by becoming the first pilot to fly faster than the speed of sound. She made her mother promise not to tell anyone, explaining that it wasn’t just a family confidence, but a military secret.
One week after Welch had pushed the XP-86 over into what he believed was a Mach 1 dive, the X-1 flew at Mach 0.925, faster than the Mach 0.92 achieved on October 10. Yeager was sure he had done it. Ridley had worked his magic on the horizontal stabilizer trim mechanism and Yeager was certain he had popped through. The entire X-1 flight test team was at Pancho’s that Friday evening waiting for the data reduction people to show up with the official figures. Yeager and Pancho were huddled in a corner. The X-1 pilot had a furrowed brow. He was trying to explain to Pancho that he might not have been pointing toward the Fly Inn when he finally pushed through the big barrier. That might explain the absence of a boom earlier in the day, when he was virtually certain he had finally made the first supersonic flight. When Pancho pointed out that Welch had sure made one hell of a boom more than a week ago, Yeager insisted that it was just a fluke. Pancho arched her eyebrows and noted that it had heated up a stable full of fillies at her hacienda.
Then the data sifters showed up, half elated, half despondent. Yeager had gone a lot faster than ever before. He had come as close as you can get and still had not made the ultimate penetration. The most careful analysis showed that on the morning flight, the X-1 had attained Mach 0.997. Another pint of rocket fuel and it would have slid through.
On October 13, Welch called Ferren to check on the status of the Sabre, which Ferren reported would be ready first thing next morning. “By the way, L.A. is insisting that like the last two flights, the next one be made with the gear down, ” he added.
“We can focus on gear-down tests on the next two flights, but I want the option to retract the gear if I need to,” Welch replied, his mind working at warp speed. Why were they doing this? Was the Air Force making sure there would be no more surprise, albeit unofficial, booms?
Early Tuesday morning, October 14, Welch taxied the company Navion onto the ramp of North American’s hangar at Muroc’s North Base. The XP-86 had already been rolled out. Also on the ramp was the P-82 chase plane. Fellow test pilot Bob Chilton would be flying chase again.
“The Air Force is kinda looking down our throats on this flight, aren’t they?” said Chilton. He also knew that Yeager might bust Mach 1 that morning, and, knowing what Welch was up to, noted that there might be an awkward 15 minutes between Welch’s reported performance of test card maneuvers and his eventual return to base. He suggested that Welch stretch out the test card, letting the narration over the radio trail the actual performance of the maneuvers. That way, when people on the ground heard a boom, they might think it was Yeager.
Welch climbed to the 10,000 feet and ran through the lateral and directional stability checks on the test card, but he reported the results via radio to the North American flight test engineer at Muroc on only half of them. He retracted the landing gear and waited for Chilton to slide underneath to check on his gear doors. Chilton gave him a thumbs-up and Welch advanced the throttle to full military power. During his climb to 37,000 feet, he kept reading out the results of the tests not yet reported. As he reached his altitude goal, 2,000 feet above the starting point for his successful sound barrier penetration of nearly two weeks earlier, he once more rolled into a dive of at least 40 degrees and headed westward with the nose of his Sabre pointing directly at Pancho’s. On the way down, he called out the results of the next to last test point on the card.