I was always afraid of dying. Always. It was my fear that made me learn everything I could about my airplane and my emergency equipment, and kept me flying respectful of my machine and always alert in the cockpit.
Seventy-two years ago Captain Chuck Yeager, a double ace in World War II, flying the experimental X-1, broke the sound barrier. Two days before the flight Yeager broke two ribs and was in such pain that he could not close the cabin door without assistance. Needless to say he did not report his injury to anyone in authority who could scrub him from the flight. George Welch, also a World War II ace, may have broke the sound barrier on October 1, 1947, flying in an XP-86, but his speed could not be verified.
As indicated by the video clip below from The Right Stuff, the life of a test pilot in those days often ended in sudden death, so while we salute Yeager’s skill we should also be mindful of his courage and those of his brother pilots. George Welch died in 1954 when the test plane he was flying disintegrated. The Right Stuff consists of more than courage, but it is an essential component.
General Yeager, who is still with us at age 96, wrote an account of his breaking the sound barrier for Popular Mechanics on the fortieth anniversary:
I had flown at supersonic speeds for 18 seconds. There was no buffet, no jolt, no shock. Above all, no brick wall to smash into. I was alive.
And although it was never entered in the pilot report, the casualness of invading a piece of space no man had ever visited was best reflected in the radio chatter. I had to tell somebody, anybody, that we’d busted straight through the sound barrier. But transmissions were restricted. “Hey Ridley!” I called. “Make another note. There’s something wrong with this Machmeter. It’s gone completely screwy!”
“If it is, we’ll fix it,” Ridley replied, catching my drift. “But personally, I think you’re seeing things.”
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