A Distant Rumble of Thunder: The Story of the Bell X-1

A Distant Rumble of Thunder: The Story of the Bell X-1

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A Distant Rumble of Thunder:” The Story of the Bell X-1
In the history of man’s ascent into the heavens, there are certain names, phrases, and
dates that stick. Kitty Hawk. “One small step for man…” October 14th 1947. That was the fateful
day that a man had intentionally surpassed the supersonic mark. The pilot was a man named
Chuck Yeager, a synthesis of courage and aeronautical prowess, and the plane was the Bell X-1,
an orange bullet of a plane. Yeager managed to make history and set the stage for much that
would follow.
The man, Captain Chuck Yeager, was born in West Virginia. He enlisted in the Army Air
Force in 1941, flying in a number of missions in the European theater of WWII. He had an
aptitude for it, because by the end of the war, “he had thirteen and a half kills,” at the tender age
of 22 (Wolfe 32). After the war, he trained to become a test pilot, and was selected to go to a
base in the boondocks of California, Muroc Field. Tom Wolfe describes the area as “some fossil
landscape that had long since been left behind by the rest of terrestrial evolution,” with dried lake
beds that stretched on to the horizon that could serve as natural landing fields (23-24).
The plane Yeager was flying was the Bell X-1. Painted vibrantly orange, the plane’s
fuselage was shaped like a fifty-caliber bullet, as a .50-cal’s bullet was “proven to be stable at
supersonic speeds” (Yeager and Cardenas 14). Anyone entering the airplane was entering at their
own risk; the plane’s cockpit was entered from the side instead of the top; therefore, there was no
real effective way to bail out of the airplane if anything went wrong. Moreover, the plane’s

rocket fuel had to be kept within a tight range of five psi to achieve maximum thrust without
exploding the plane. Thus, to use an analogy, the Bell X-1 was a spirited horse that could do
what she was supposed to do, but needed a steady and experienced hand. Enter Yeager.
Pilot, plane, and field have come together. Over a series of flights, Yeager increasingly
approached Mach One, as the sound barrier is known. On his first flight, Chuck reached .85 of
Mach 1. He steadily chipped away at it until reaching .94 of Mach 1. At that point the
‘Glamorous Glennis’ (what Yeager calls the X-1 after his wife) stopped responding to the
controls of her pilot. Yeager manages to get the plane under control once the Bell decelerates at a

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lower altitude, and once on the ground, the problem is, if not solved, at least ameliorated. Still,
the X-1’s “a sound airplane, but she’s also an experimental airplane, and you’re a researcher on
an experimental flight” (Yeager 338).
October 14th, 1947 rolls around. The stress of cutting edge research has taken its toll, on
Yeager and the team assisting him. On top of that, Yeager has broken two ribs two nights earlier
on a horse riding excursion with his wife (Wolfe 37). If the brazen pilot goes to the flight
hospital, he gets benched, so Yeager goes to see the doctor in town a few miles away. The taped
ribs hurt still, but not as much as before. Back on base, the captain flies ‘Glennis’ into the
heavens, the ninth time. He plans to try for the sound barrier the tenth flight, but the Mach gauge
reaches .965 Mach and then suddenly goes over. He gets a call from those assisting on the
ground, for they “heard what sounded like a distant rumble: my sonic boom!” (Yeager 350).
Mankind has finally reached the supersonic threshold and surpassed it.
The rest, to use the terrible cliché, is history. Yeager himself breaks his own records,
going Mach 2.4 in 1953 (Wolfe 49). The envelope is constantly pushed. The speed record is

broke time and time again. Planes go up into space. Soon after, the first artificial satellite,
Sputnik, goes up. Animals and men are sent up into space, culminating in the Moon landings.
That’s just spacecraft. Airplanes become increasingly advanced, going faster and faster, and
become capable to do more and more. It all started on the fateful day in the tenth month of
October, 1947.
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