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A Super Sonic Sixty Years

UNITED STATES, WASHINGTON : This file photo taken at Edwards AFB in California in1995, shows Brig. Gen. Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager in the cockpit of an F-15 . AFP PHOTO/HO
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Oct 11, 2007
Former World War II flying ace Chuck Yeager's stellar career has included dogfights over Nazi Europe and a sympathetic big screen portrayal in the Hollywood film "The Right Stuff."

Nothing quite matches the achievement that clinched his fame 60 years ago this week, however, when he smashed through the sound barrier, in the process forever changing the face of aviation.

Yeager, who epitomized the hotshot fly-boys of the postwar era, broke the sound barrier on October 14, 1947, flying the experimental rocket powered Bell X-1 aircraft.

At the time, young air force captain with the chiseled features and charismatic aura was assigned as a test pilot with the X-1 program -- then the hottest aviation project in the world.

Yeager was just 24 when he made his groundbreaking flight during a program with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) which was conducting research on high-speed flight.

Soaring at an altitude of 45,000 feet (13,700 meters) he reached the speed of sound -- some 1,100 kilometers per hour -- after he and several other pilots in the same program came frustratingly close, without quite managing to breach the barrier.

The significance of the flight was enormous: Supersonic speed, Yeager told AFP, allowed the US military to fly "faster than the enemy," but just as importantly, "it opened up space: Star Wars, satellites," he said.

Ten years after Yeager broke through the sound barrier, the United States was able to launch its groundbreaking Mercury space program, the template for the Apollo space program which succeeded it and which eventually landed the first human on the moon.

He offers a colorful retelling of that day, including the sage advice given him by his mentor at the time, Colonel Albert Boyd, head of NACA's Aeronautical Systems Flight Test Division.

"Get above MACH 1 as soon as you can, don't bust your butt, and don't embarrass the Air Force," he says Boyd told him just before the flight.

Yeager eventually attained the rank of brigadier general in his flying career, spanning more than six decades, which has taken him to every corner of the globe.

Sixty years on, later he acknowledges breaking the sound barrier as perhaps his crowning achievement, saying it still gives him "a sense of accomplishment."

"I had done what the old man had sent us out to do," he said in written comments to AFP, referring again to Boyd.

The aircraft in which he made his historic flight was nicknamed the "Glamorous Glennis" in honor of his wife.

His colleague "Slick" Goodlin, another test pilot for Bell Laboratories, once famously described the X-1 as a "bullet with wings.

It was in fact, modeled after a 50-millimeter bullet, with short wings and a pointed tip, allowing it to pierce more efficiently through the air.

Since that historic day, breaching the sound barrier has become an almost routine act, including by Yeager, who told AFP that the number of times he has flown faster than the speed of sound is "too many to count"

"Just flew an F-16 on September 21, 2007, and broke the sound barrier again to commemorate the 60th anniversary of breaking the sound barrier," he recounted, in his typically laconic style.

He added that he also exceeded the sound barrier when taking part in recent commemorations marking "the 60th anniversary of the United States Air Force on Sept 18, 2007, and 65 years of my flying military cockpits."

While supersonic flight is no longer the singular event it was six decades ago, Yeager predicts it will never become a daily occurrence, at least not as far as commercial aviation is concerned.

"Not economical," he said.

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