A Sound-Breaking Work of Staggering Genius: How Chuck Yeager Reached Supersonic Speed

By Mark Fischetti

"When we weren't flying, we zipped on our leather flight jackets, crowded around the blackjack tables of the Tonopah Club, drank ourselves blind on rotgut, then staggered over to the local cathouse."

That's how America's most famous fighter pilot, Chuck Yeager, describes himself and his 18-year-old pals in 1941, as they completed Army Air Corps training before taking part in World War II. By the time the war was over, Yeager had flown 64 missions, logged 13 "kills," and had been shot down over enemy territory in German-occupied France (only to escape). His extraordinary aviation talents were evident, and he soon enrolled in the newly constituted U.S. Air Force. But his was no ordinary stint in the service. In 1947, Yeager volunteered to be the test pilot for a top-secret, rocket-powered plane dubbed X-S-1. The "˜X' stood for experimental. The "˜S' meant it would fly at supersonic speed. And the "˜1' indicated that it was to be the first aircraft to break the sound barrier—if Yeager didn't die trying.

The Flight Plan

Why would the swaggering stud from Hamlin, W. Va., risk his neck to achieve supersonic speed? Simply stated, America had to do so if it was going to compete with the Germans and the Japanese, and Yeager knew it. During the war, American fighter pilots such as Yeager would often shake enemies off their tails by diving during dogfights, sending planes plummeting at close to supersonic speeds. Military engineers feared that if the machines hit the so-called sound barrier while doing this, it would cause them to break apart. On the other hand, they also knew that if they could harness new jet engines to propel fighters faster than the speed of sound, the planes would be impossibly difficult to shoot down.

In order to create a supersonic plane, engineers faced a few problems. First, they had to build an aircraft tough enough to withstand a "sonic boom." When a plane flies, it pushes the air in front of it, creating waves of compressed air molecules, similar to the way water waves build up at the bow of a boat and fan out on each side. But as an airplane reaches the speed of sound, it pushes these waves so hard that they actually collide, creating earsplitting shock waves, or those famous sonic booms.

While engineers reached the point at which they could build an aircraft tough enough to withstand the shock wave punch, their bigger concern was that the waves could leave a dead wake behind them. With no air for the plane's control flaps to press against, the craft could suddenly nosedive. Facing this risk, the logical thing would be to test the experimental plane in a wind tunnel, but laboratory tunnels maxed out at 85 percent of the speed of sound, (or Mach 1, which at sea level is 760 mph.) In the end, the only way to test the X-1 was to strap Yeager into the jet and light a candle.

This is Only a Test

b29-x1.jpgThis was the game plan: Yeager would be piloting the carefully crafted X-1. Shaped like a bullet with two stubby wings and a high tail, the 31-foot-long plane would be loaded with 600 gallons of liquid oxygen and alcohol fuel stored (precariously) right behind the pilot's seat. Even more risky, the X-1 wouldn't take off on its own. It would actually be hung from the bomb-release hook inside a B-29 bomber, which another pilot would fly up to 25,000 feet. At that point, Yeager would climb down a spindly ladder to the X-1, dangling in the dark bomb bay, and crawl into its tiny cockpit. The B-29 pilot would then open the bomb door and drop Yeager into the sky. Plummeting like a rock, Yeager would fire the X-1's four rocket engines in succession, blasting him up to nearly 40,000 feet and straight through the sound barrier. But this wasn't a one-off attempt. Over the course of several months, Yeager was to make a series of flights, each designed to push the X-1 incrementally closer to Mach 1.

Finally, the first test day arrived. In his 1985 autobiography, Yeager admits that as the B-29 climbed into the air that day, he crawled into the X-1 cockpit "and waited to be dropped like a [expletive] bomb." Suddenly, the bay door opened, the cable released, and Yeager fell into blinding sunlight while being chilled to the bone from the liquid oxygen tanks behind him. Now Yeager had to ignite the first rocket. "If you are gonna be blown up," he notes, "this is likely to be when." He threw the switch and—wham!—he was thrown back into his seat as the rocket blasted the plane skyward. Yeager ignited the other rockets and, per plan, reached Mach 0.85 at 35,000 feet.

At this point, Yeager's instructions were to cut off the engines, jettison the remaining fuel, and sweep toward the desert floor, landing gingerly like a glider. But Yeager wasn't one to play by the rules. Instead, he dove straight down to 300 feet, leveled off over the air base, and re-lit all four rockets. The unexpected maneuver blew a 30-foot flame out the back of the X-1 as it screamed straight back up to Mach 0.82. The next day, the highest-ranking colonel at the air base told Yeager to obey orders, or he'd be gone.

Breaking Waves

Plenty went wrong during subsequent runs. On Flight 7, as Yeager reached Mach 0.94, he lost all control of the plane's tail due to the compression waves. Design changes were made, and on Flight 8, Yeager hit Mach 0.955. The plane shook violently, but the new tail controls held up. Yeager, however, was sweating so profusely as he fought the buffeting that his evaporating body moisture frosted the inside of his windshield—meaning he essentially had to land the X-1 blind.

Exhausted and tense, Yeager knew he was getting closer to the goal, and that his next flight might be "the one." To let off some steam, he took his wife, Glennis, out to Pancho's, the lone establishment at the edge of the air base where test pilots raised hell. Florence "Pancho" Barnes, the female proprietor and self-described desert rat, kept some horses out back, and after dinner, Chuck and Glennis raced after one another on horseback under the pitch-black sky. Unfortunately, Yeager didn't see the oncoming fence until his horse suddenly veered off. He was thrown to the dirt, and cracked two ribs in the fall. Knowing he'd be grounded if he reported to the base doctor, Yeager had his wife sneak him out of town where a local doc taped him up.

yeager-ridley.jpgYeager knew he could still fly, but there was one thing those cracked ribs wouldn't allow him to do: close and latch the cockpit door after climbing into the plane. So the night before he was scheduled to fly, Yeager called his project engineer, Jack Ridley (pictured with Yeager), and the duo slipped into the X-1 hanger. The ingenious Ridley sawed off a broomstick that Yeager could jam into the door as a lever, and they hid the stick beside the seat.

The next morning, on October 14, 1947, Yeager climbed aboard the mothership, and its pilot took them up to 25,000 feet. Yeager struggled down the ladder, crumpled into the X-1 seat, felt for the broomstick, and locked the door. After the B-29 dropped him, Yeager fired two rockets and raced upward. At Mach 0.96, the plane buffeted strongly, and he fired the third and fourth rockets. The speed gauge fluttered, then tipped right off the scale. Suddenly, Yeager's ride was smooth as silk. Shock waves were forming behind the plane, and Air Force personnel on the ground were pounded with sonic booms. Yeager maxed out at Mach 1.07, then glided the X-1 in. "After all the anticipation," Yeager would write later, "it really was a letdown. It took a damned instrument to tell me what I'd done. There should have been a bump on the road. Something to let you know you had just punched a nice clean hole through that sonic barrier."

All Quiet on the PR Front

Despite his achievement, Yeager couldn't really celebrate. The feat had to be kept secret because spies were always lurking around. It wasn't until months later that the military announced the record-breaking flight, managing to obscure the technical details from the public. The secrecy worked. Several years later, when the newest American fighter planes, the F-86s, engaged Soviet MiGs over Korea, the superior speed advantage resulted in a kill rate of 10-to-1.

Yeager's career, however, was far from over. The gutsy pilot had plenty of white-knuckle sessions after the historic flight, including his very next trip on the X-1. Just after being released from the bomb bay, the plane lost all electrical power, and Yeager dropped like a boulder toward the Earth. Fortunately, he managed to dump the 5,000 pounds of explosive fuel he had onboard and manually level the barreling bullet—just seconds before it would have plowed into the ground.

Yeager spent seven more years as a test pilot, and in 1953, he reached Mach 2.44. He also trained military pilots to become some of the first astronauts, but was never chosen himself—an irony dramatized in the 1983 movie, The Right Stuff. Yeager retired in 1975 as a brigadier general.

The next year, the Concorde SST became the first commercial airliner to fly passengers at Mach speeds. A decade later, inspired by the posh plane and space shuttle flights, President Ronald Reagan proposed a hypersonic "space plane" that would fly from Washington to Tokyo in two hours. The notion evolved into an embattled NASA program, the X-43A. On March 27, 2004, the needle-nosed bullet was dropped from a B-52B bomber and its novel "scramjet" engines fired it to Mach 7 at the incredible altitude of 95,000 feet. But there was no Yeager-esque cowboy at the controls; the test flight went unmanned.


10 Facts About Aspirin

Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.


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