World War II fighter planes reached top speeds of 600 miles per hour. After the war, jet engines dramatically increased airplane speed. Some people wondered if pilots could maneuver or even survive flying so fast.
Others theorized that any plane attempting to fly faster than the speed of sound, or Mach 1, would run into a wall of air and shatter. On October 14, 1947, a B-29 bomber roared aloft above the deserts of southern California. Inside the plane’s hatch was a 31-foot, bright orange jet airplane that looked like a bullet.
The Bell X-1 was designed to withstand the pressures of flying beyond the speed of sound. American pilot Chuck Yeager climbed down into the tiny cockpit and at 20,000 feet, the plane was released. Yeager activated the first rocket, which slammed him back into his seat.
One by one, additional boosters ignited, pushing the aircraft’s speed to .7 Mach, .8 Mach, and finally to the edge of the sound barrier. Below, observers heard a giant explosion that echoed through the desert.
Yeager had broken the sound barrier, producing the first sonic boom in history. Yeager’s flight paved the way for supersonic jets and the space program. Pilots would never again wonder what existed on the other side of the sound barrier.