The world is now dominated by a hypersonic race, with superpowers scrambling to develop an aircraft that would travel at five times the speed of sound. However, several decades ago, a US Air Force pilot scripted history by becoming the first person ever to break the sound barrier.
On October 14, 1947, former US Air Force pilot General Charles E Yeager, popularly known as Chuck Yeager, became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound aboard the rocket-powered Bell X-1 aircraft that was painted orange and resembled a 50-caliber machine gun bullet.
His flight became known as “breaking the sound barrier.”
At the height of 13,000 meters, Yeager, a US Air Force Captain at the time, reached a speed of 1,127 km/h. After this information was declassified in June 1948, he was dubbed “The Fastest Man Alive,” among other titles.
Along with John Stack and Bell Aircraft Corporation President Lawrence Bell, Yeager received the 1947 Collier Trophy for their scientific achievements in faster-than-sound flight.
General Yeager is now remembered as a legend who registered incredible records in the history of the US Air Force. During World War II, he became an ace fighter, shooting down five German planes in a single day and 13 in all.
Yeager was instrumental in ushering in the era of military jets and spaceflight in the decade that followed the end of the world war. He flew over 150 military aircraft and clocked over 10,000 hours in the air.
However, his defining flight and one that became the fastest of his career was in October of 1947; he got out of a B-29 bomber as it flew over the Mojave Desert in California and into the cockpit of an orange, bullet-shaped, rocket-powered experimental plane attached to the bomb bay.
Breaking The Sound Barrier
At the time of his iconic flight, he was an Air Force captain, and he took off in a Bell Aircraft X-1 at an altitude of 23,000 feet.
When he reached roughly 43,000 feet over the desert, the first sonic boom in history resonated across the floor of the dry lake beds. The Bell X-1 was a research vehicle that was installed in the bomb bay of a four-engine B-29 bomber from World War II.
He had sped up to 700 mph, shattering the sound barrier and refuting the long-held concern that any jet traveling faster than the speed of sound would be ripped apart by shock waves.
“After all the anticipation to achieve this moment, it was a letdown,” General Yeager wrote in his autobiography “Yeager.”
In 1947, the modest Yeager said that he could have gone even faster if the plane had carried additional fuel.
“It was nice, just like riding fast in a car,” he remarked. Yeager’s achievement was kept top secret for about a year when the world thought that it was the British that had broken the sound barrier first.
On October 14, 2012, on the 65th anniversary of the event, Yeager flew in the back seat of an F-15 Eagle as it broke the sound barrier at more than 30,000 feet above California’s Mojave Desert.
During the Vietnam War, the pilot went on to command fighter squadrons in Germany and Southeast Asia and was promoted to brigadier general in 1969. On March 1, 1975, he announced his retirement.
In 2020, the fastest man in the world breathed his last and his wife announced his death on Twitter. He has left behind a legacy on which the momentum kept building up to achieve flight at speeds earlier not known to humankind.
Supersonic To Hypersonic
The fastest fighter jets in service today are supersonic jets that include the Soviet-built MiG-25, which was designed as an interceptor and can fly at a top speed of Mach 3.2, and the American F-15E Strike Eagle, which has been in service for more than 30 years now can fly at a top speed of 3,017 miles per hour, and the Su-27 which has a top speed of 2,496 mph.
However, the days of the supersonic could be behind us soon as many countries are aggressively pushing for hypersonic fighter jets, passenger aircraft, and hypersonic missiles.
A hypersonic flight is achieved at five times the speed of sound or more.
Both Russia and China have operational hypersonic missiles. While Moscow used Kh-47M2 Kinzhal against Ukraine recently, China conducted a hypersonic test last year in which the hypersonic weapon went around the world. There are reports that even North Korea has a hypersonic weapon in its inventory now.
On the other hand, the United States has undertaken many hypersonic missile tests, with ten failures since 2010. Its most recent test in May 2022 was a success, but the country is still at least a few years away from matching China and Russia, according to various reports.
Further, even though there is no operational hypersonic aircraft in the world right now, there are several active programs in various stages of research and concept development. If all goes well, the world could awaken to the transition from Supersonic to Hypersonic aircraft by the next decade.