General Chuck Yeager—an idol of anyone who has ever sought to break a speed record, whether in the air, on land, or on the water— turns 96 today. He proved that speed that were thought to be impossible for humans were actually attainable.
That all started in October, 1947 with the flight of the Bell X-1, an experimental aircraft that was built for one reason: to break the sound barrier. The diminutive plane, nicknamed Glamorous Glennis, wasn't like other aircraft. It carried more than 5000 pounds of fuel, and that fuel wasn't just pump gas. The rocket engine needed liquid oxygen and water alcohol to run. If something went wrong during fueling, the fuel could explode with the equivalent force of 5000 pounds of TNT.
It also couldn't take off on its own. The X-1 was taken to 35,000 feet attached to the bottom of a B29, where it was released and the rocket engines were ignited. The X-1 dropped, quickly climbed to 56,000 feet, and started accelerating. Yeager's flight was a success, hitting Mach 1.07, making him the first person to break the sound barrier. It went off without a hitch, the X-1 landing safely on its own.
While it took that long for air travel to break the sound barrier, it took just six more years to double the speed, with Yeager hitting Mach 2.44 in the X-1A during a terrifying flight that saw him set a speed record at 80,000 feet. Then he lost control. It dropped 51,000 feet, wildly pitching and rolling, with Yeager hitting his head on the canopy and losing radio . He regained control around 25,000 feet and safely landed the aircraft. Here's the full story:
What a hero.