Tuesday, October 16, 2007

I learned how to push a machine without it biting me

On October 14, 1947, Chuck Yeager became the first man to pilot the Bell X-1 faster than the speed of sound, above the California desert at Muroc Dry Lake Bed.

"We just didn't know what would happen when we reached the speed of sound, because we didn't have any wind tunnel data. We could put a model in the wind tunnel and blow air by it at supersonic speeds, but what happened, a shock wave would form on that model at about .9 mach, or 90 percent of the speed of sound, and that shock wave then would bounce off the wall of the tunnel, and it would choke up the tunnel. We didn't have any data from about .9 mach to 1.1 mach. People really just didn't know. It was ignorance. They thought that an airplane would never go faster than sound, because of the shock waves that built up on it. But, as I say, that really didn't make any difference to me. I could care less. It's your job to try it. And that's the way it worked out."

Chuck Yeager
American Academy of Achievement interview
February 1, 1991
Cedar Ridge, California

After the flight, the Army clamped tight security on the whole thing, and Yeager wasn’t permitted to tell anyone. He celebrated with just a few other pilots at a local watering hole. He flew a dozen more transonic flights in the X-1, but still under tight wraps. His accomplishment wasn't announced to the public until mid-1948.

The supersonic X-1 in flight
"I lived my first 18 years of my life in Lincoln County, WV," says Yeager. "That's where you're molded. The rest of the time you're working. But you're molded into what you're going to be in those first 18 years."

Yeager says he had not thought much about the future when he was growing up. He had fun as a youth flying kites and hunting squirrels in the mornings. Sometimes, he says, he would arrive at school 15 minutes after starting time, and the principal would not be too sympathetic with the explanation that he had had squirrels to skin.

Yeager recalls spending a lot of time playing football and basketball.

"I was trained in sports," he says. "Sports are a big part of your life training for adulthood."

The Ford garage and Shorty Hager's garage, he says, were the vocational schools of his day. “They turned over their garages to us. They taught us what we knew.”

"A machine" he said, "will bite a person who does not understand it."

What he learned from Shorty Hager and from Carl Clay at the Ford garage he credited with keeping him alive over his flying years.

"I learned how to push a machine without it biting me."

After Yeager's historic flight was declassified in June 1948, he was awarded the Collier Trophy, the most prestigious honor in aviation, and accorded celebrity status as "The Fastest Man Alive."


Originally blogged at Appalachian History

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