On Oct. 14, 1947, General Chuck “Charles” Yeager hastened himself through thesound barrier in a yellow rocket plane that resembled a rifle bullet. Ever since theSecond World War, fighter pilots were making claims of exceeding the speed of soundin a dive. While propellor-driven aircraft were able to approach Mach 1 (the speed ofsound) with such a maneuver, it was not recommended due to the conditions thatfollowed, which were well beyond the design envelope of these early fighter planes. Itwas now official that mankind had exceeded the speed of sound, this time in apurpose-designed aircraft.
Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1, lovingly named “Glamorous Glennis” in his wife’s honor, was aproduct of the time in which it was built. Mankind’s understanding of reaching criticalMach number was limited to bullets and the cracking of a whip, which produce a sonicboom. Naturally, the pioneering supersonic aircraft would take shape in the wayhumanity knew how. Rocket-powered and dropped from the undercarriage of a B-29Superfortress bomber, the yellow bullet would propel itself through the thin air to43,000ft. Yeager had to be bolted into the cockpit of the rickety Bell X-1, and wasalmost sure that the record-breaking flight would cost him his life. Nevertheless, Yeagersurvived and managed to remain in control of his ship as it produced a sonic boom overthe Mojave Desert.
Little more than two decades later, supersonic flight would no longer be a luxuryreserved solely for military aircraft. The technologies and aeronautical designtechniques of the early post-war years presented an array of possibilities. Primitive bytoday’s standards, they were considered ground-breaking at the time and were exploredto a great degree by NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, renamed toNational Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958). As early as January 1947, BellAircraft had presented a depiction of a possible passenger airliner to Life Magazine thatwould exceed Mach 1.
The machine was a thing of fantasy at the time, especially giventhat the first jet airliner would not make its maiden flight for at least two more years.The supersonic dream and the ever-increasing desire to push the limit prevailed a shorttwenty-two years later. Chuck Yeager’s valor in 1947 snowballed into a series of speedrecords throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In 1953, A. Scott Crossfield commanded theDouglas D-558-II Skyrocket through twice the speed of sound. Aircraft continued toachieve higher Mach numbers, particularly as wing and fuselage design improved tocompensate for the additional drag beyond the once-impenetrable sound barrier.
Just over two decades after man passed through the sound barrier for the first time, anew machine graced the skies with supersonic capabilities. Concorde, loaded with tentons of test instrumentation and a helmet-clad test flight crew, soared above SouthernFrance on Mar. 2, 1969. $10.3 billion in 2019 USD later, the supersonic passengerairliner had finally made its maiden flight.
Seven months after French Concorde prototype F-WTSS (002) startled the world,French test-pilot Andre Turcat once again took the controls of the “big bird.” On Oct.1, 1969, Concorde sat comfortably at 36,000 ft, 75 miles from Toulouse-Blagnac Airport.She was ready. Concorde F-WTSS had only 45 test flights under her belt, and thisvoyage was considered the most dangerous thus far. “There was no nervousness. Ifyou’re nervous in a situation like this, you should change your job. You must never benervous, always calm,” said the late French national hero in the Smithsonian’s 2010Concorde documentary.
Concorde was hardly an airliner at this stage in testing. Instead, the aircraft was a flyinglaboratory. For this flight, computers and test instrumentation would record the aircraft’severy movement. In preparation for breaking the sound barrier, Concorde’s distinctivenose and visor were retracted to cruise configuration. As the aircraft’s afterburnersthrusted it ever-closer to the speed of sound, Andre Turcat passed the controls to hiscolleague Jean Pinet.
Turcat had the honor of flying the aircraft during its maidenvoyage, and wanted Pinet to have the glory of pushing Concorde through the soundbarrier. “I said, ‘Now you take it to Mach 1,’ and he was really happy,” recalled Turcat.Mach 1.05 was maintained for approximately nine minutes after 11:29 hrs, and theaircraft decelerated to subsonic speeds once again. Surprisingly, the event was smoothand effortless. Thanks to twenty years of innovation and supersonic research, a designwas perfected to give passengers an experience far superior to Yeager’s terrifying andrickety transition into supersonic flight. Concorde had achieved a major milestone in hersix-year test program— one of many to be had. From this point on, further test flightswould be conducted at higher Mach numbers.
Five decades after the historical event, travelers are faced with restricted legroom,expensive inflight entertainment, mediocre airline food, and cramped seating.Unfortunately, air travel does not have the same luster that it once had. Air travelers areforced to live life in the slow lane, as no airliners currently flying can exceed Mach 0.8.Eighteen of the twenty Concordes ever built sit idly as static displays around the world,and supersonic flight is once again a luxury reserved for military aircraft. However, Concorde remains an aviation icon and a timeless exemplar of prestige. The BritishAirline Pilots Association (BALPA) held an “Aircraft World Cup” in 2018, where Concordewas voted the most iconic airplane. The legacy of speed Concorde left behind continuesto inspire future generations of pilots and aerospace engineers that dream of a fasterfuture.