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Photo: IBL
Photo: IBL

Aviation

The historical picture: Breaking the sound barrier

On 14 October 1947, American Air Force flying ace Chuck Yeager became the first person to officially break the sound barrier when he flew his Bell X-1 aircraft at Mach 1.

The sound barrier is a popular term for the sudden increase in aerodynamic drag and other effects experienced by an -aircraft or other object when it approaches supersonic speed. These effects were once seen as making supersonic speed impossible to achieve – an idea that went out with a bang when Yeager made his historic flight.

The Bell X-1 used four rocket engines and a shape modeled after a machine gun bullet. For the record--breaking flight, the aircraft was launched from the bomb bay of a specially modified B-29. Yeager broke the sound barrier at an altitude of 45,000ft (13,700m) over the Mojave Desert in California.

Yeager, born in 1923, was considered by many to be the best pilot of his generation. He was shot down over France during World War II but escaped, via Spain, with the help of the French Resistance, to return to combat operations and demonstrate outstanding flying skills and leadership.

After the war, he remained with the US Air force and became a test pilot. After he broke the sound barrier he went on to break many other speed and altitude records. He also returned to commanding fighter squadrons and reached the rank of Brigadier General.

Yeager is now 94 years old. His flying career has spanned more than 60 years and taken him to every corner of the globe, including the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War.

His record-breaking flight in 1947 was depicted in The Right Stuff, a 1979 novel by Tom Wolfe, which was turned into a highly acclaimed film in 1983. Yeager had a cameo in the film as a bartender serving his younger self, portrayed by the actor Sam Shephard. 

Modern aircraft today can easily transit the sound barrier. But with the exceptions of Concorde and the Russian Tupolev Tu-144 – both now retired – supersonic commercial -aircraft have not yet taken off.

Last edited: March 28, 2018

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