Fifty-six years ago this month, USAF Major Charles E. Yeager set an unofficial world speed record of 1,650 mph (Mach 2.44) in the Bell X-1A flight research aircraft. In the process, Yeager nearly lost his life.
The USAF/Bell X-1A was a second generation X-aircraft intended to explore flight beyond Mach 2. It measured 35.5 feet in length and had a wing span of 28 feet. Gross take-off weight was 16,500 pounds.
Like its XS-1 forebear, the X-1A was powered by an XLR-11 rocket motor which produced a maximum sea level thrust of 6,000 lbs. The XLR-11 burned 9,200 pounds of propellants (alcohol and liquid oxygen) in roughly 270 seconds of operation.
Departing Edwards Air Force Base, California on Saturday, 12 December 1953, Yeager and the X-1A (S/N 48-1384) were carried to altitude by a USAF B-29 mothership (S/N 45-21800 ). X-1A drop occurred at 240 knots and 30,500 feet. Within ten seconds, Yeager lit off three of the XLR-11’s four rocket chambers and started to climb upstairs.
Yeager fired the 4th chamber of the XLR-11 passing through 43,000 feet and initiated a pushover at 62,000 feet. The maneuver was completed at 76,000 feet; higher than planned. In level flight now and traveling at Mach 1.9, the X-1A continued to accelerate in the thin air of the stratosphere.
Yeager quickly exceeded Scott Crossfield’s briefly-held Mach 2.005 record set on Friday, 20 November 1953. However, he now had to be very careful. Wind tunnel testing had revealed that the X-1A would be neutrally stable in the directional channel as it approached Mach 2.3.
As Yeager cut the throttle around Mach 2.44, the X-1A started an uncommanded roll to the left. Yeager quickly countered with aileron and rudder. The X-1A then rapidly rolled right. Full aileron and opposite rudder failed to control the roll. After 8 to 10 complete revolutions, the aircraft ceased rolling, but was now inverted.
In an instant, the X-1A started rolling left and then went divergent in all three axes. The aircraft tumbled and gyrated through the sky. Control inputs had no effect. Yeager was in serious trouble. He could not control his aircraft and punching-out was not an option. The X-1A had no ejection seat.
Chuck Yeager took a tremendous physical and emotional beating for more than 70 seconds as the X-1A wildly tumbled. Normal acceleration varied between plus-8 and negative 1.3 G’s. His helmet hit the canopy and cracked it. He struck the control column so hard that it was physically bent. His frantic air-to-ground communications were distinctly those of a man who was convinced that he was about to die.
As the X-1A tumbled, it decelerated and lost altitude. At 33,000 feet, a battered and groggy Yeager found himself in an inverted spin. The aircraft suddenly fell into a normal spin from which Yeager recovered at 25,000 feet over the Tehachapi Mountains situated northwest of Edwards. Somehow, Yeager managed to get himself and the X-1A back home intact.
The culprit in Yeager’s wide ride was the then little-known phenomenon identified as roll inertial coupling. That is, inertial moments produced by gyroscopic and centripetal accelerations overwhelmed aerodynamic control moments and thus caused the aircraft to depart controlled flight. Roll rate was the critical mechanism since it coupled pitch and yaw motion.
The X-1A held the distiction of being the fastest-flying of the early X-aircraft until the Bell X-2 reached 1,900 mph (Mach 2.87) in July of 1956. Yeager’s harrowing experience in December 1953 would be his last flight at the controls of a rocket-powered X-aircraft. For his record-setting X-1A mission, he was awarded the 1953 Harmon Trophy.