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The first manned aircraft to exceed the speed of sound (approximately 760 miles per hour at sea level) in level flight was the U.S. Air Force X-1 rocket plane, the first of which was constructed in late 1945 by the Bell Aircraft Corporation.
The bullet-shaped X-1 was a single-seat, lowing monoplane with a length of 31 feet and a wingspan of only 28 feet. Power was supplied by a Reaction Motors RMI-6000C4 rocket engine with four rocket tubes producing 1,500 pounds of static thrust each. As there was no way to throttle the rocket engine, speed was controlled by firing one, two, three or all four tubes. At full power, the engine burned so much fuel that flight endurance of the alcohol/liquid oxygen-powered X-1 was only 2½ minutes.
During the 1940s, when the Bell X-1 was under development, the problems encountered in propelling aircraft at and beyond the speed of sound seemed almost insurmountable. The use of advanced technologies in aerodynamics, metallurgy and structural engineering was required to break the so-called sound barrier. During World War II pilots of high-speed fighter planes often found their aircraft violently buffeted and their controls rendered useless when in a steep dive. These pilots had encountered a mysterious invisible wall of resistance which later became known as the sound barrier.
When a conventional propeller-driven aircraft approaches the speed of sound the very bulk of the aircraft and propeller themselves cause the air in front of the plane to build up. But when a highly streamlined, thin-winged rocket or jet-powered aircraft reaches the sound barrier, it pierces it easily, actually splitting the air apart with a thunderclap--or sonic boom--that can be heard as much as 60 miles away.
That phenomenon first occurred in controlled level flight on October 14, 1947 when a Bell X-1 was dropped from the belly of a modified B-29 bomber at 30,000 feet over Muroc Dry Lake, California. At the controls was a much-decorated World War II fighter pilot, Air Force Captain Charles E. Yeager, Yeager attained a speed of Mach 1.04, or 964 miles per hour--more than 300 miles per hour faster than the speed of sound at that altitude.
The preceding information was extracted from the pamphlet,
"The Great Airplanes Sterling Silver Miniature Collection", published by The Franklin Mint, 1979.
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Updated: March 12, 2004