Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Right Stuff

As a teenager, I loved the story of Yeager and company and their feats of derring-do in the skies over the high Mohave Desert.  The aerospace insiders are quite careful to pass around the credit for their various accomplishments (unlike the mass media that covers them) and by the 1960s when I caught up with the story, the focus had already shifted to rockets and space flight.  Even so, everyone seemed to love Yeager and on a regular basis, someone would recount his story.  "The Right Stuff" may have been about the Mercury 7 astronauts, but Wolfe would claim that Yeager had invented the stuff.

In some ways, however, breaking the sound barrier would prove to be almost irrelevant in the history of atmospheric flight.  Yes it was possible to go beyond the sound barrier and live, but the effort required so much energy that fighter planes could only fly supersonic for a few minutes before exhausting their fuel and the Concorde was so expensive to fly that even with government subsidies, there weren't enough rich folks to buy those premium tickets.

It turned out that the sound barrier did exist but mostly in an energy and economic sense.  And because the sound barrier is so real, the 1960s subsonic triumphs like the 747 would define the upper practical limit of flight, and the F-15 fighter like Yeager would fly on the 65th anniversary of breaking the sound barrier first flew in 1972.  This story of how aviation grew is the single greatest reason why I believe in the S-shaped growth curve.  From the Wright Brothers to the X-1 only took 44 years—to the 747 66 years.  But because of the economic sound barrier, very little has changed since then.  S-curve!

Chuck Yeager retraces history in the sky, breaking the sound barrier -- again

By the CNN Wire Staff
October 15, 2012

(CNN) -- Chuck Yeager retraced history on Sunday, 65 years to the minute, as the first test pilot to break the sound barrier, taking to the skies once again to fly faster than the speed of sound.

The 89-year-old Yeager broke the sound barrier in a U.S. Air Force F-15 at 10:24 a.m. over the Mojave Desert, the same location where he first flew past Mach 1 on October 14, 1947, the military said in a statement.

Yeager, flying in the F-15 with an Air Force captain, told CNN late Sunday that he hit Mach 1.3 and "laid down a pretty good sonic boom over Edwards" Air Force Base.

Yeager's reenactment of his historic flight came the same day that Austrian Felix Baumgartner became the first person to break the sound barrier as a skydiver, jumping from a balloon at the edge of space to make the 23-mile journey.

Not the only one to break the sound barrier this day

While Yeager's sound-breaking flight was news in military and aircraft manufacturing circles, his popularity soared when Tom Wolfe detailed Yeager's flight in the book "The Right Stuff" and its subsequent film adaptation.

"I really appreciated the Air Force giving me a brand new F-15 to fly," Yeager told CNN.

Today, fighter jets can easily break the sound barrier. In fact, Yeager's flight Sunday did it at an altitude of about 33,000 feet, according to a statement provided by the Air Force.

But in 1947, the golden age of flight, Yeager was dropped in an experimental rocket-propelled Bell X1 jet from a B-29 bomber at an altitude of 45,000 feet.

"That's the only way we could do it," he said.

"It took the British, French and the Soviet Union another five years to find out that trick. It gave us a quantum jump" in aviation advancement, he said. more

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