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The Bell X-1 was the first manned aircraft to exceed the speed of sound in level flight.
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In 1944, the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) started a project, together with the U.S. Army Air Forces, that aimed to develop a piloted supersonic aircraft.
Within the framework of the MX-635 project, the Bell Aircraft Corporation was commissioned to manufacture three supersonic aircraft for research purposes.
The rocket engine-powered aeroplanes were designated XS-1 (Experimental Sonic). The maiden flight of the XS-1 (later X-1) was performed by test pilot P. V. "Jack" Woolams on 25 January, 1946.
The aircraft achieved a milestone in the history of aviation on 14 October 1947 when test pilot C. E. "Chuck" Yeager became the first person to exceed the speed of sound in level flight, piloting a Bell X-1 bearing the registration mark 6062. Yeager performed the flight with two fractured ribs after a horse-riding accident.
The confirmed speed of the X-1, flying over the Mojave Desert was approx. 1,127 km/h, 1.06 times greater than the speed of sound (Mach 1.06). This speed was achieved during the 50th flight of the aircraft.
In the spring of 1947, Yeager named the aeroplane 'Glamorous Glennis' in tribute to his wife (Glennis Dickhouse).
Today the legendary Bell X-1 is on display in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, in Washington DC.
The single-seater aircraft, designed to carry out basic aeronautical research, was a rocket plane. Its fuselage was inspired by the shape of a bullet of the .50 Browning Machine Gun.
The Bell X-1 was made of stress-resistant aluminium. It was designed to withstand 18Gs (a force 18 times greater than the gravitational force) while manoeuvering in the air. It was painted international orange for better visibility.
The fuel capacity of the X-1 permitted only approx. 2.5 minutes of burn time, so the aircraft had to be lifted in the air by a heavy bomber (usually a B-29 Superfortress). At an altitude of 7,000–8,000 m, the pilot of the X-1 detached the aircraft from the suspensions, then, after a short descent, switched on the aircraft’s own engine. After using up the fuel, it landed by gliding.
If the sound source, for example, an aircraft, moves so fast that it reaches the speed of sound characteristic of the particular medium it is travelling through, the wavefronts form a cone, which is known as the Mach cone.
The Mach cone moves together with the aircraft. The sound waves are amplified along the cone surface, so an observer, over whom the cone surface passes, can hear a sonic boom.
Contrary to popular belief, this does not occur only at the moment when the aircraft exceeds the speed of sound. It is continuously occurring during supersonic flight but is not heard everywhere.
Where the Mach cone intersects the surface of the Earth, it forms a hyperbola, known as the boom carpet. The sonic boom spreads across this curve, which follows the flight path. It can cause severe damage: windows can break and unstable rocks may shake and fall to the ground.
Sonic booms are produced mostly by supersonic fighter aircraft, but the snapping of a whip also generates a minor sonic boom.
Charles Elwood Yeager's career began in WWII as a private in the US Army Air Forces.
After serving as an aircraft mechanic, he entered pilot training in 1942. After graduating, he was promoted to the rank of flight officer and served on the Western Front as a P-51 Mustang fighter pilot.
After the war, he worked as a test pilot and later became the first person to officially exceed the speed of sound in level flight.
Later he commanded several fighter squadrons and wings in Germany and Southeast Asia. He also participated in the Vietnam War. For his achievements, he received several awards and was promoted to brigadier general.
He was also an acknowledged flight instructor and one of the most notable commandants of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School and thereby played an important role in training NASA astronauts.
He retired in 1975 but did not stop flying. He carried out numerous military and civil test flights. He broke numerous distance, speed and time records, which made him one of the most legendary pilots of all time.