The Bell X essays

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The Bell X essays

Fifty years ago, in 1947, it was common knowledge that there was a “Wall of Air” at the speed of sound. As an airplane neared this critical point, shock waves would pound its wings and tail. The pilot would lose control, a condition then called “compressibility.” Often, the airplane would shatter into pieces.
Dozens had lost their life trying to break through this “sound barrier.”By early 1947, the British had thrown in the towel when their plane, a unique tailless design called “The Swallow,” self-destructed at 0.94 Mach.The pilot, Geoffrey De Havilland, Jr., was killed instantly.This left the field to the Americans.Under US Army Air Forces and NACA contract, engineers at Bell Aircraft Corporation designed and built a unique airplane for the task of surmounting the Wall. It was called the X-1.
Painted a brilliant orange for better visibility, the X-1 was unlike other aircraft of its day. It was shaped like a bullet with wings sharpened to a razor edge.Its XLR-11 engine, a 4-chamber rocket nicknamed, "Black Betsy," was fueled by a dangerously volatile mixture of liquid oxygen and diluted ethyl alcohol.Every time you flicked the switch to fire the rockets, you ran the risk of exploding in mid-air.The airplane was built for one thing — to conquer the speed of sound by breaking through the barrier and beyond into supersonic flight.
By May of 1947, the Bell X-1 had completed 20 successful flights and reached a speed of 0.80 Mach, or 80 percent the speed of sound. Test Pilot, Chalmers "Slick" Goodlin tried renegotiating his contract when he realized the risks he would face.Attempting to get $150,000, he put the program on hold.The Air Force knowing that they still needed to go supersonic to compete with Russia decided to use their own test pilots.Air Force test pilots would risk their lives for a regular pay rate and flight pay amounting to a few hundred dollars a week.Flying the X-1 woul…