Chuck Yeager, easily the most famed test pilot in human history, broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 experimental rocket plane. What’s even more amazing is that he did it with two broken ribs. But the breaks didn’t occur during the historic flight. They occurred on the ground the night before.
Yeager had completed eight powered flights in the X-1 up to that point, and the next step was to take the plane to Mach .98. A dangerous maneuverability problem had been corrected, and it was felt the plane could be pushed further. The next flight would be after a weekend, and the night before he was to go up again, Yeager and his wife, Glennis (whose name had been used as a nickname for the X-1, the “Glamorous Glennis”) went out to dinner at a well-known, local establishment called Pancho’s.
After their dinner, the couple took a pair of Pancho’s horses out for a ride. They raced the horses for the barn at the end of the ride, but a gate had been closed. Yeager’s horse struck the gate, threw him, and he landed on the ground. The result of the fall was two broken ribs.
A couple of broken ribs would have grounded Yeager from flying, so he got his wife to drive him to an off-base doctor who taped them up. But a new problem arose. Yeager wasn’t physically able to close the cockpit of the plane. He told Jack Ridley, a fellow pilot and aeronautical engineer, about the problem, and Ridley made a handle out of a broomstick, which would allow Yeager to close the door. Ridley had also figured out the issues with the X-1’s maneuverability during the previous flight, and here he had come up with another fix, albeit a slightly unorthodox one. Yeager gave it a try and was able to close the door using the broomstick while on the ground since the plane would be in the bomb bay of a Boeing B-29 for the flight.
When the flight took place later, Yeager was able to latch the cockpit before he was dropped from the B-29 for the historic flight. He got the plane to Mach .965 before the meter went off the scale. A sonic boom was heard on the ground, and Yeager flew past the speed of sound for twenty seconds. His final speed was 700 miles per hour or Mach 1.06 at 43,000 feet.
Sources: Chuck Yeager, Popular Mechanics
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