XS-1 Supersonic Scoop (1947)


Aviation Week scored one of the biggest aerospace scoops of the 20th century when on December 22, 1947, it revealed that the fabled sound barrier had been broken by U.S. Air Force Capt. Charles ‘Chuck’ Yeager in the Bell XS-1.

Capt. Charles ‘Chuck’ Yeager achieved Mach 1.06 on his record flight in Bell X-1 No.1 46-062, pictured here under power from its Reaction Motors XLR11 rocket engine.

The news was leaked to the magazine’s renowned and respected Engineering Editor Robert McLarren around two months after the October 14 flight over Muroc Dry Lake, California, and made instant headlines around the world. At the time, the pursuit of high speed flight in excess of the speed of sound had become a serious technical challenge for the early jet designers. Teams across America, Britain and France were racing to be the first to push a manned aircraft beyond Mach 1.

The mysterious and intriguingly named ‘sound barrier’, so-called because of the effects of compressibility encountered by aircraft in the transonic speed region, also captured the imagination of the post-World War Two public. The sensation caused by Aviation Week’s story, not to mention the disclosure of classified test results, therefore infuriated the Air Force. According to Jay Miller, writing in his authoritative ‘X-Planes’ history, the Aviation Week story “caught the Air Force completely by surprise. Rumors of legal action, based on what the Air Force considered a very serious security breach, against Aviation Week persisted for weeks, but nothing came of them. The flight now was public domain and a lawsuit could not suppress the fact.”

Similar to the B-29 used for initial X-1 flights, the more powerful EB-50A derivative was selected as a carrier aircraft for later tests. Here the ill-fated third X-1 is seen being readied for loading beneath the aircraft in 1951. Both the X-1 and B-50 were destroyed by fire in November that year when liquid oxygen reacted with Ulmer leather gaskets in the experimental aircraft.  

Described by McLarren as the Bell XS-1 (‘S’ for supersonic, a title later simplified to X-1), the aircraft fuselage configuration closely resembled a .50 caliber bullet, the theory being that this was known to be a stable aerodynamic shape at sonic velocity. The rocket-powered vehicle also had straight, thin, but strong wings which McLarren identified as a significant factor given that swept wings were fast becoming the favored configuration for higher speed designs. “Now the possibility exists that swept wings will not be required for supersonic aircraft and a re-evaluation of high speed design characteristics of current projects is indicated.”

Given the pioneering times we can forgive McLarren for such speculation, particularly when he was working on such relatively limited information. It's also curious to see in the story that Yeager’s name is misspelled Yaeger. Was this a simple error, or perhaps deliberately done as part of efforts to protect his source? We shall never know, but regardless of this, McLarren’s supersonic scoop remains one of Aviation Week’s greatest breaking news stories.

Read the December 22, 1947 edition cover story: Bell XS-1 Makes Supersonic Flight

► Aviation Week is approaching its 100th anniversary in 2016. In a series of blogs, our editors highlight editorial content from the magazine's long and rich history, including viewpoints from the industry's most iconic names and stories that have helped change the shape of the industry.

Discuss this Blog Entry 9

on Jan 31, 2015

These were exciting times. In 1956 I was a 19 year old engineering aide at Edwards South Base working for Curtiss-Wright on the J-65 turbojet engine being flight tested in various military aircraft. We were also testing the J-67 combined cycle turbo-ramjet for the XF-103 which was expected to reach Mach 4 and higher. Although the XF-103 was cancelled before it ever flew the J-67 was test flown underneath a B-45. While I was there the X-2 was also being tested. Mel Apt died in the X-2 crash. Nine other test pilots were killed in 1956. Never forget what these brave pioneers did.

on Feb 26, 2016

The 1947 article is a good read, Aviation Week was and still is on top of everything—with one funny error.
Bob Hoover was one of the project test pilots along with Yeager. NOT Herbert Hoover. The ex-prez was still around but probably not flying.
UPDATE: Oops. My bad. Have been informed there really was a Herbert Hoover project test pilot, and after a quick search I found that he was the 2nd person to exceed the speed of sound. Should have done my homework before commenting!

on Jan 31, 2015

It's nice to remember.

on Feb 23, 2016

Good old days when pilots techs and engineers had the guts to risk everything to discover new boundaries!!

on Feb 23, 2016

In 1947, I was just 13 years old, and didn't know anything about the event. But, in 1957-58 was in SAC on Alert in Spain. Then 'Chuck' Yeager was the commander of an F-100 unit that was to give us 'cover' if we were 'sent off' to deliver a nuclear weapon. Then honored to meet him at AirVenture some years ago....an incredible person, and 'guru' in Aviation. In fact I have a photo of him when I met him at AirVenture...and 'chatted' about the flight he had flying back to Spain where we were in the B-47 formation where the AC flying the B-47 he was in; couldn't get refueled over northern New England....but that's another story!

on Feb 23, 2016

I was a kid, when I was reading the Aviation Week about the X-1, X-3 and X-15, "Chuck" Yeager and Scott Crossfield, the beautiful F-84 and F-100, all the time in my heart and in my dreams. Thanks Aviation Week.

on Feb 26, 2016

Actually there really was a test pilot at Edwards named Herbert Hoover. Among other things he was the first civilian pilot to break the sound barrier. Made 14 flights in the X-1. Bob Hoover did many flights as chase pilot but did not fly the X-1.

on Aug 3, 2016

In 1943 Miles in the UK were awarded a contract to design a ground-launched aircraft to exceed 1000 mph. By February 1946, when the prototype was almost ready to fly it was cancelled. It pioneered the razor wing and the all-moving tail. We agreed to exchange data with Bell, but the data flow was all one way, and US members of our national 'Supersonic Committee' got the Miles project cancelled. Sheer incompetence on our part - and of course it allowed the US to get there first!

on Aug 3, 2016

Great article! Too bad the XS-1 wasn't the first sonic boom heard over that lake bed. No disrespect intended for all of great work that went into the X-1 project.

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