- Friday, April 25, 2008
Flight Test Commander Colonel Albert Boyd had a dream too – to take the best pilot and the best man supersonic. The good news was that planes were in development and headed his way. The bad news was that the Colonel was unsettled about finding a man in his pilot corps who could match these complex aircraft with equal knowledge of them and translate that knowledge directly into the cockpit during flight.
Test pilot school was not easy. The aeronautics, physics, and mathematics of jet flight were going to be critical for Chuck should he be the one to take jet aircraft supersonic. Flying planes was as natural as breathing but, as smart as Chuck was, this part of school was a battle. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Chuck hooked up with a flight engineer named Jack Ridley who’s gift was explaining complex math and physics. For both Ridley and Yeager it seemed destiny had delivered the right man at the right time. In the coming weeks and months this partnership would prove mission critical.
In August of 1947 eight powered flights were made, each providing new data, and new obstacles. Hurdles included:
- major turbulence – the closer to mach speed, the worse the turbulence;
- shock waves – disruptions on the plane’s control surfaces made operating the plane impossible at .94 mach. Controls suddenly ceased to function on the seventh flight, requiring Yeager to kill power, jettison fuel, and glide back down;
- nose stability - the ability to operate the elevator that controlled the pitch of the nose was lost approaching mach speed, impacting the angle of attack and preventing greater speed.
Prior to the eighth flight, Ridley theorized that they could control the plane near mach speeds using the horizontal stabilizer instead of the elevator to correct their angle of attack. On the eighth flight Chuck tested the concept at .96 mach and his buddy was right. Buoyed by the developments, Colonel Boyd decided they would take the X-1 to .98 mach on the next run. Prospects for supersonic were on the horizon until turbulence of another kind jeopardized the next flight.
On October 12th (two days before the next flight) Chuck and his wife were riding horses. To finish the ride they decided to race the horses back to the barn thinking a gate to the barn was open. Instead, the gate was bolted shut! Chuck’s horse hit the gate almost at full speed and Chuck was launched unwillingly, into near-supersonic flight. The result was two broken ribs just two days before the big day.
This presented unique problems for Captain Yeager. For starters, an X-1 pilot did not enter the cockpit like a traditional fighter jet. He had to enter through a tiny side door. Easy enough. But once inside, the door had to be pulled into place. Ouch! Then the door had to be latched from the inside by pushing a lever forward to lock the cockpit door. Triple-dog ouch! He simply couldn’t do it. He confessed his secret to Ridley, and as they mulled over the dilemma, Ridley had an engineers’ epiphany. Never at a loss at solving complex problems, Ridley fashioned a makeshift handle out of a broomstick. Chuck could use the stick to pull the door closed, push the lever, and lock the cockpit door. Colonel Boyd remained blissfully in the dark.
On the morning of October 14, 1947, Chuck and his broomstick entered the cockpit of the X-1 and lifted off in the B-29 making its way to target elevation for the ninth time. Myriad questions coursed though everyone’s minds as the signal arrived from the B-29 pilot that target elevation had been achieved.
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