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October 14, 1947: Yeager Breaks the Sound Barrier

I was always afraid of dying.  Always.  It was my fear that made me learn everything I could about my airplane and my emergency equipment, and kept me flying respectful of my machine and always alert in the cockpit.

Chuck Yeager

 

Seventy years ago Captain Chuck Yeager, a double ace in World War II, flying the experimental X-1, broke the sound barrier.  Two days before the flight Yeager broke two ribs and was in such pain that he could not close the cabin door without assistance.  Needless to say he did not report his injury to anyone in authority who could scrub him from the flight.  George Welch, also a World War II ace, may have broke the sound barrier on October 1, 1947, flying in an XP-86, but his speed could not be verified.

As indicated by the video clip below from The Right Stuff, the life of a test pilot in those days often ended in sudden death, so while we salute Yeager’s skill we should also be mindful of his courage and those of his brother pilots.  George Welch died in 1954 when the test plane he was flying disintegrated.  The Right Stuff consists of more than courage, but it is an essential component.

 

General Yeager, who is still with us at age 94, wrote an account of his breaking the sound barrier for Popular Mechanics on the fortieth anniversary:

 

 

I had flown at supersonic speeds for 18 seconds. There was no buffet, no jolt, no shock. Above all, no brick wall to smash into. I was alive.

And although it was never entered in the pilot report, the casualness of invading a piece of space no man had ever visited was best reflected in the radio chatter. I had to tell somebody, anybody, that we’d busted straight through the sound barrier. But transmissions were restricted. “Hey Ridley!” I called. “Make another note. There’s something wrong with this Machmeter. It’s gone completely screwy!”

“If it is, we’ll fix it,” Ridley replied, catching my drift. “But personally, I think you’re seeing things.”

Go here to read the rest.

August 1, 1911: Harriet Quimby Gets Her License

1911_harriet-quimby

The officials of the Aero Club of America, the licensing agency for American pilots, were reluctant, but there was no gainsaying that she had passed the test with some fine flying.  So Harriet Quimby became the 37th licensed pilot in the United States, the first female licensed pilot in the United States, and the second female licensed pilot in the world, on August 1, 1911.

Born in 1875, Quimby had made a name for herself as a journalist and a theater critic.  In 1911 she wrote seven silent film screenplays that were made into movies by up and coming director DW Griffith.

Not adverse to publicity, she wore a striking purple pilot’s uniform and was the spokeswoman for Vin Fiz grape soda.  She became something of a media sensation, being called Queen of the Air on occasion.

However, she also had solid ability as a pilot in the infant world of aeronautics.  On April 16, 1912 she became the first female to fly across the English Channel.  Several male pilots had already lost their lives while attempting the same feat. Continue Reading

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John Joseph Montgomery: Forgotten Catholic Pioneer of the Air

In 1884 John Joseph Montgomery made the first manned, controlled, heavier than air flight in a glider he built.  Born in 1858, he became intrigued with flight when as a boy in 1869 he witnessed the historic flight of the steam driven proto blimp Aviator Hermes, Jr. built by Frederick Marriott.  In 1883 Montgomery built a wing flapping glider that of course failed as a glider.  In 1884 he made aviation history by building a monoplane glider with curved wings.  He flew a considerable distance at Otay Mesa near San Diego, California.  In 1884-1885 he built a monoplane glider with flat wings, with hinged surfaces at the backs of the wings to maintain lateral balance, the first step towards ailerons.  He also used cables to control the tale of his glider.

In 1885 or 1886 he built a water tank and experimented hundreds of times with moving water over surfaces to understand the movement of air over wings.

A Catholic, Montgomery earned his BA and MA from Saint Ignatius College in 1879 and 1880.  He went on to earn a doctorate in physics from the Jesuit College, Santa Clara, where he was a professor from 1898 until his death.  The Jesuits were quite enthusiastic about the aviation work of Montgomery and extended facilities at the college for him to conduct his experiments and build his gliders, one of which was named Santa Clara. Continue Reading