A few hours before Felix Baumgartner fell to Earth at Mach 1.4 on Sunday, the original supersonic human was in a plane, proving that he still had "the right stuff.”
89-year-old retired Air Force General Chuck Yeager rode in the back seat of an F-15 Eagle that broke the sound barrier 30,000 feet above the Mojave Desert in California. Yeager piloted the experimental Bell X-1 jet over that same desert on Oct. 14, 1947, becoming the first human being to break the sound barrier.
“Enjoyed the flight yesterday ... did a sonic boom same time, same day I did it first -- 65 years ago,” Yeager tweeted on Monday.
The plane left Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas, broke the sound barrier at 10:24 a.m. and touched down shortly afterward at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Yeager told reporters he was not aware of Baumgartner’s skydive, according to the Associated Press.
Yeager was born in West Virginia in 1923. Shortly after graduating high school, he enlisted in the Air Force and eventually won his pilot’s wings. Thanks in part to his outstanding 20/10 vision, Yeager was an ace pilot; in a single mission, he shot down five enemy aircraft.
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After the war, Yeager became a test pilot at the Air Force’s Muroc Field, now Edwards Air Force Base. Days before he flew the X-1, Yeager fell from a horse and broke two ribs but did not tell his superiors for fear of being taken off of the project. Instead, he asked a local veterinarian to treat him, and fellow pilot Jack Ridley devised a way for the injured Yeager to seal the X-1’s hatch using a broom handle.
The jerry-rigged device worked, and Yeager was safely sealed in the Bell X-1 plane, shaped like a “bullet with wings” and nicknamed Glamorous Glennis after Yeager’s first wife. Glamorous Glennis was hauled up to 45,000 feet by a B-29 Superfortress bomber and dropped out the bomb bay doors.
Yeager’s feat was later immortalized in “The Right Stuff,” a 1979 book by journalist Tom Wolfe that was adapted into a movie in 1983.
Previous attempts to break the speed of sound with aircraft had run into trouble. Some propeller planes were able to approach near-transonic speeds in a dive, but in certain planes, pilots found it difficult to pull out of such dives due to interacting airflow between the wings and tail surfaces. The shock waves caused by approaching the sound barrier also proved stressful, leading to structural failures like the one that destroyed a British experimental plane, the de Havilland Swallow.
After Yeager’s supersonic flight, planes became more adapted along the lines of the X-1 in order to routinely break the sound barrier, with swept wings and more powerful engines.
To break the sound barrier, you don’t necessarily need to be a fighter pilot or a daredevil -- just handy with a bullwhip. The crack of the whip is actually a little sonic boom, as is the report of most firearms.
Some researchers think that even dinosaurs had “the right stuff” as well, arguing that the large sauropods may have been able to flick their tails like whips.