Seventy years ago this week, the USAF/Bell XS-1 became the first aircraft of any type to achieve supersonic flight during a climb from a ground take-off. The daring feat took place at Muroc Air Force Base with USAF Captain Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager at the controls of the rocket-powered XS-1.
Rocket-powered X-aircraft such as the XS-1, X-1A, X-2 and X-15 were air-launched from a larger carrier aircraft. With the test aircraft as its payload, this “mothership” would take-off and climb to drop altitude using its own fuel load. This capability permitted the experimental aircraft to dedicate its entire propellant load to the flight research mission proper.
The USAF/Bell XS-1 was the first X-aircraft. It was carried to altitude by a USAF/Boeing B-29 mothership. XS-1 air-launch typically occurred at 220 mph and 22,000 feet. On Tuesday, 14 October 1947, the XS-1 first achieved supersonic flight. The XS-1 would ultimately fly as fast as Mach 1.45 and as high as 71,902 feet.
All but two (2) of the early X-aircraft were Air Force developments. The exceptions were products of the United States Navy flight research effort; the USN/Douglas D-558-I Skystreak and USN/Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket. The Skystreak was a turbojet-powered, straight-winged, transonic aircraft. The Skyrocket was supersonic-capable, swept-winged, and rocket-powered. Each aircraft was originally designed to be ground-launched.
In the best tradition of interservice rivalry, the Navy claimed that the D-558-I at the time was the only true supersonic airplane since it took to the air under its own power. Interestingly, the Skystreak was able fly beyond Mach 1 only in a steep dive. Nonetheless, the Air Force was indignant at the Navy’s insinuation that the XS-1 was somehow less of an X-aircraft because it was air-launched.
Motivated by the Navy’s affront to Air Force honor, the junior military service devised a scheme to ground-launch the XS-1 from Rogers Dry Lake at Muroc (now Edwards) Air Force Base. The aircraft would go supersonic in what was essentially a high performance take-off and climb. To boot, the feat was timed to occur just before the Navy was to fly its rocket-powered D-558-II Skyrocket. Justice would indeed be served!
XS-1 Ship No. 1 (S/N 46-062) was selected for the ground take-off mission. Captain Charles E. Yeager would pilot the sleek craft with Captain Jackie L. Ridley providing vital engineering support. Due to its somewhat fragile landing gear, the XS-1 propellant load was restricted to 50% of capacity. This provided approximately 100 seconds of rocket-powered flight.
On Wednesday, 05 January 1949, Yeager fired all four (4) barrels of his XLR-11 rocket motor. Behind 6,000 pounds of thrust, the XS-1 quickly accelerated along the smooth surface of the dry lake. After a take-off roll of only 1,500 feet and with the XS-1 at 200 mph, Yeager pulled back on the control yoke. The XS-1 virtually leapt into the desert air.
The aerodynamic loads were so high during gear retraction that the actuator rod broke and the wing flaps tore away. Unfazed, Yeager’s eager steed climbed rapidly. Eighty seconds after brake release, the XS-1 hit Mach 1.03 passing through 23,000 feet. Yeager then brought the XS-1 to a wings level flight attitude and shutdown his XLR-11 powerplant.
Following a brief glide back to the dry lake, Yeager executed a smooth dead-stick landing. Total flight time from lift-off to touchdown was on the order of 150 seconds. While a little worst for wear, the plucky XS-1 had performed like a champ and successfully accomplished something that it was really not designed to do.
Yeager was so excited during the take-off roll and high performance climb that he forgot to put his oxygen mask on! Potentially, that was a problem since the XS-1 cockpit was inerted with nitrogen. Fortunately, late in the climb, Yeager got his mask in place just before he went night-night for good.
Suffice it to say that the United States Navy was not particularly fond of the display of bravado and airmanship exhibited on that long-ago January day. The Air Force had emerged victorious in a classic contest of one-upmanship. Indeed, Air Force honor had been upheld. And, as was often the case in the formative years of the United States Air Force, it was a test pilot named Chuck Yeager who brought victory home to the blue suiters.