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

Satisfactory Essays
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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