In the fall of 1947 a much higher stakes version of this game was playing out at the Muroc Army Airfield (soon to be Edwards Air Force Base) in the California dessert. Two experimental aircraft, both supersonic capable, were being flight tested by two distinctly type-A pilots.
The Bell X-1 was an experimental rocket-plane, built for the sole purpose of generating scientific data on supersonic aerodynamics. It was the culmination of a 5 year joint effort between the Army Air Force and the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics - the NACA - to be renamed NASA a few years later. Designed in 1942, the X-1 used rocket engines - the simplest and most reliable way at the time to make enough thrust to push the plane through the sound barrier. Rockets are not very efficient in terms of fuel consumption, but the whole idea was just to get an instrumented air-frame up to supersonic speeds; the X-1 was never intended to be a practical aircraft. To get the most possible supersonic flight time the X-1 was carried to altitude by a B-29 and given a 300 mph head start. Once released, the pilot would light the rocket engines for a few minute ride to Mach 1, then glide back to the desert floor for an unpowered landing.
By contrast, the North American Aviation XP-86 was the prototype for one of the first jet powered fighter planes. The XP-86 Sabre-jet had benefited from aerodynamic data captured from the German aircraft industry at the end of WWII, from several years of jet engine research and development, and from the same top notch engineers that had designed the P-51 Mustang. As a result the XP-86 had a swept wing that improved stability at supersonic speeds, an engine with enough power for a conventional takeoff, and the range for extended test flights.
Of course the X-1 was flown by Chuck Yeager, while the XP-86 was being flown by more obscure NAA test pilot George Welch. Welch was a bit of a character, but there was no doubt he could fly. He had been an Army Air Force pilot in the Pacific during WWII; he was one of the few pilots to get a P-40 airborne at Pearl Harbor on December 7th. Welch and fellow pilot Ken Taylor had been at an all night party/card-game; they raced to the airfield in Taylor's Buick and literally took off with bombs falling around them. Welch is credited with 4 kills (3 Vals and a Zero) and Taylor 2 kills (both Vals); its likely they both scored a few more that couldn't be confirmed. If this story sounds vaguely familiar, it is one of the many bits of history mangled by Disney in their version of the Pearl Harbor story, with Welch being replaced by Ben Affleck playing the fictionalized character Rafe McCawley.
A brief diversion: Most of the historical articles on this blog are based on trivia I've picked up from an assortment of books, bull sessions, campfire stories, personal experiences - basically anything that catches my interest. Then I try to piece together a coherent story from diverse and often conflicting sources. In this case, much of the information is drawn from a single book called Aces Wild: The Race for Mach 1, written by former test pilot Al Blackburn. I found Aces Wild under the Christmas tree this year. Its not especially well written; it is Mr. Blackburn's first and only book, and it wanders and repeats itself a bit too much. But Blackburn tells the story of George Welch and post war aviation that only he could tell, and it is worth reading for that alone - but consider checking it out of the library before you buy one for your collection.
Blackburn was a test pilot at North American Aviation (NAA) in the early 1950s; he knew Welch and many of his contemporaries, and he heard the stories first hand from the people who were there and had made an effort to leave no evidence. Now back to my story...
Welch had 16 kills in WWII, many while flying the less than outstanding P-39, before malaria put him out of the war in mid 1943. Strangely, all of Welch's reported kills were for multiple aircraft; some folks think he simply didn't bother to report single kills. While he was ambitious and competitive, he didn't have to keep score of his personal accomplishments.
One of the many stories circulating about Welch that gives you an idea of who he was: while stationed in New Guinea with the 36th Figther Group, he supposedly asked his commanding officer when his squadron would get the new P-38s that Dick Bong and others were using to shoot down Zeros with such great efficiency. He was told "when we run out of P-39s". Shortly after, Welch and his fellow pilots began to experience "engine trouble" just before they made it back to base, "forcing" them to bail out and send the
P-39s into the Pacific.
But in the fall of 1947, Welch was just like Chalmers Goodlin : another ex-fighter pilot working as a test pilot for a big aircraft company that wanted to sell the Air Force lots of aircraft. Stuart Symnington, the newly appointed Secretary of the newly formed U.S. Air Force, badly wanted a bit of prestige for the new branch of the service. He let the executives at North American know that he expected the X-1, with a USAF pilot, to break the sound barrier first.
So on the first flight of the XP-86, on October 1st, Welch did what you would expect from a pilot willing to parachute into the Pacific in hopes of scoring a better plane: he took the Sabre to 35,000 feet, advanced the throttle to full and eased into a steep dive. Because he wasn't supposed to be doing any of that (he wasn't even supposed to retract the landing gear on that first flight), he didn't turn on the recording devices and cameras that would have created evidence to be used against him. So when he saw the air-speed indicator freeze even though the plane was still accelerating, then jump 50 knots to something in the neighborhood of Mach 1, there was only his oral report to the NAA engineers to verify what had happened.
On the ground - especially at Pancho Barnes's Happy Bottom Riding Club which was fortuitously located just below his pull out - a number of people heard what they would soon recognize as a sonic boom. But while a number of people heard a boom, it isn't clear whether the YP-86 actually went supersonic or just got very close. Goodlin had managed to make a tiny boom - actually more of a "crack" - in the X-1 at less than Mach 1 by pulling up and then diving, a maneuver that caused airflow over the wings to go briefly supersonic. It was possible Welch had done something similar while pulling up from the dive. The YP-86 would not be tracked by accurate ground radar until several weeks later - after Yeager's historic flight - when it managed a best of Mach 1.04 in a similar dive. But that didn't stop Welch from repeating the trick the morning of October 14th, sending another boom across the Muroc air field just about the time legend has it that Chuck Yeager was using a broom handle to latch the door on the X-1 before taking off to make history.
Official or not hardly mattered to Welch or North American Aviation; they had let the Air Force know the F-86 was a pretty amazing airplane, and then scored additional points by cooperating to give the Air Force the big success they needed. Having Welch's name in the record books was not nearly as sweet as purchase orders for new F-86s.
Interestingly enough, while Yeager is generally credited with being the first pilot to go supersonic in level flight, I discovered that he does not hold an official record for breaking the sound barrier. The Swiss Federation Aeronatique Internationale (FAI) sets the rules for aviation records, and in 1947 the rules required the aircraft to takeoff under its own power and to set the record speed in level flight at sea level. The warm dense air at sea level means the speed of sound is 100 mph higher than at altitude, and also means the aerodynamic stresses are higher. Neither the X-1 or the XP-86 could manage mach 1 at sea-level (about 740 mph). The first plane to accomplish that feat was NAA's next generation fighter, the F-100 Super Saber, a plane that would take Welch's life during a test flight in October of 1954; if he had lived another 25 years Wolfe's the Right Stuff may have read quite a bit differently!
Normally I would throw in a few lines about building a model of Welch's YP-86, but strangely enough there are no readily available kits of the prototype (all of the kits out there are Korean era F-86s, with significant detail differences). If you're reading this, maybe you could drop a note to your favorite kit maker and tell them there are modelers out here who want one of these.