First Supersonic Pilots


I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it appears your father must have been pulling your leg after all. The second person to fly an aircraft past the speed of sound after Chuck Yeager was another Air Force test pilot named James Fitzgerald, Jr. Like Yeager, Fitzgerald was also flying the X-1 rocket-powered research plane when he achieved the milestone.

X-1 research plane
X-1 research plane

Flight testing of the X-1 began in January 1946, and a total of 19 pilots ultimately flew the three test aircraft over the course of 157 flights. The first fourteen flights were spaced out over nearly a year and included a series of unpowered glides. The first powered flight was not until December 1946 when pilots from manufacturer Bell Aircraft began gradually pushing the aircraft to greater speeds. The Bell gliding and powered tests were flown by pilots Jack Woolams, Chalmers Goodlin, Joseph Cannon, and Alvin "Tex" Johnston and concluded in June 1947 after 37 flights. These early flights had demonstrated that the X-1 was a challenging vehicle to fly but was sufficiently safe and reliable to forge ahead into the unknown regions of transonic and supersonic flight. The X-1 aircraft were then handed over to the US Army Air Force (soon to become the US Air Force) and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the forerunner of today's NASA) for further work.

Chuck Yeager's historic flight to "break the sound barrier" came a few months later on 14 October 1947 during the 50th flight of the program. It was during this flight that Yeager reached Mach 1.06 and became the first person to officially fly at supersonic speeds. Yeager ultimately completed 34 flights aboard the X-1 and flew most of the high-speed research tests over the next few months as additional Air Force and NACA test pilots were trained to operate the plane. Among these were several of the pilots who would join Yeager to become the first four people to fly faster than Mach 1.

Chuck Yeager beside the X-1 nicknamed Glamorous Glennis
Chuck Yeager beside the X-1 nicknamed Glamorous Glennis

The first pilot who followed in Yeager's footsteps was a fellow US Army Air Force test pilot who had joined the X-1 program named James Thomas Fitzgerald, Jr. Fitzgerald had been an accomplished fighter pilot during World War II before he was shot down and held in a German prisoner of war camp until liberated in 1945. Though denied the opportunity to continue flying combat in the Pacific, Fitzgerald was later selected to become an Air Force test pilot. He completed seven flights aboard the X-1 including four at supersonic speeds. Fitzgerald first surpassed Mach 1 during the 71st flight of the program on 24 February 1948. He reached a top speed of Mach 1.1 before a fire forced him to shut off the engine and jettison the propellants. Fitzgerald continued flying the X-1 over the next few months until he was tragically killed in September 1948 following a landing accident aboard a T-33.

X-1 test pilot James Fitzgerald
X-1 test pilot James Fitzgerald

The ranks of supersonic pilots continued to swell rapidly over the succeeding few months. The next two people to exceed the speed of sound were not military test pilots but civilian X-1 pilots working for NACA. Herbert "Herb" H. Hoover was a mechanical engineer who joined NACA to become a test pilot in 1940. Hoover survived a close call while flying for a weather research program when the canopy of his plane broke loose and struck him in the head leaving a deep cut. On another occasion, a test model attached to his P-51 disintegrated puncturing his fuel tank. Hoover's abilities to overcome these difficult situations and land both planes safely earned him a great reputation and the opportunity to become chief test pilot at the NACA Langley Memorial Laboratory. In this capacity, Hoover became the first civilian to fly at supersonic speeds during X-1 flight #73 when he achieved Mach 1.065 on 10 March 1948. Hoover also trained several other NACA pilots to fly the X-1 on research missions until he lost his life aboard a B-45 bomber during a mid-air collision in 1952.

Fellow NACA pilot Howard Clifton "Tick" Lilly quickly followed to become the fourth supersonic pilot just a few weeks after Hoover had done so. Lilly had been a Navy pilot who joined NACA in 1942. After serving as test pilot on several powerplant research projects, Lilly joined the X-1 test program in 1947. Lilly got his chance to join the supersonic club on 31 March 1948 when he flew the X-1 to Mach 1.1 during flight #78. Unfortunately, Lilly also died tragically when his D-558-1 Skystreak research plane exploded shortly after takeoff the following May.

Pilots Gene May and Howard Lilly standing beside the D-558-1 Skystreak
Pilots Gene May and Howard Lilly standing beside the D-558-1 Skystreak

The fifth person to officially reach supersonic speeds is still at the center of a controversy about those who broke the "sound barrier." George Welch was a former military pilot who had gone on to become a test pilot for North American Aviation. By 1947, Welch was chief test pilot for was the XP-86 jet, prototype of the F-86 Sabre fighter. Evidence exists that Welch might have flown the XP-86 to supersonic speeds during two diving flights on 1 October and 14 October, both of which occurred before Chuck Yeager's Mach 1.06 flight. However, Welch's possible supersonic flights have been discounted primarily because his plane was not equipped with instrumentation to conclusively prove how fast he had flown. The earliest flight for which it can be proven that Welch exceeded Mach 1 occurred on 26 April 1948. Like many of the pioneering test pilots of the day, Welch too was tragically killed in 1953 when his YF-100 Super Sabre went out of control during a demonstration flight.

George Welch posing beside an F-86 Sabre
George Welch posing beside an F-86 Sabre

Aside from the lingering questions surrounding George Welch, we are relatively certain that these pilots represent the first five people to have officially flown faster than the speed of sound. The remaining individuals described below are also among that elite group of early supersonic pilots although we are not absolutely certain that others who deserve to be included have not been overlooked. This group includes additional X-1 pilots and those who achieved supersonic firsts in other aircraft that are well known. However, it is possible that pilots flying other aircraft not as well documented may have been overlooked in compiling the remainder of this list.

That disclaimer aside, the sixth pilot to fly faster than Mach 1 was another Air Force test pilot flying the X-1 named Gustav "Gus" Lundquist. Lundquist first joined the military in 1940 and worked his way through the ranks as a pilot instructor, squadron officer, test pilot, and chief test pilot. By 1944, he was flying in combat over Germany where he was shot down and taken prisoner. Upon his return to the US, Lundquist became chief of the Fighter Test Section at Wright Field and also competed in several air races. Lundquist even won the Thompson Trophy race while flying an F-80 Shooting Star in 1946. As part of his test pilot duties, Lundquist also flew six missions aboard the X-1 including a Mach 1.18 flight on 29 April 1948.

Next to join the cadre of supersonic pilots was the first British supersonic pilot John Derry. Derry was a test pilot for the de Havilland company that had built a jet-powered swept-wing transonic research plane called the D.H.108 Swallow. The Swallow was originally designed as a test-bed for the swept wings being developed for the Comet commercial airliner. However, the company also hoped to use the research plane to break the sound barrier. The first attempt was planned for late 1946 and would have beaten the Americans to Mach 1 if not for a fatal crash. On 27 September 1946, test pilot Geoffrey de Havilland, Jr. was conducting a test flight at Mach 0.9 when the D.H.108 went out of control and disintegrated.

John Derry climbing into the cockpit of the D.H.108 Swallow
John Derry climbing into the cockpit of the D.H.108 Swallow

It was not until nearly a year later when John Derry successfully flew a new D.H.108 research plane to Mach 1.0 while in a shallow dive on 9 September 1948. Tragedy continued to plague the test program, however, since the remaining two Swallows killed their test pilots in 1950. Derry himself died in 1952 when his D.H.110 fighter fell into a crowd at the Farnborough Air Show killing 28 spectators and injuring dozens more.

The next member of the supersonic pilots club was test pilot Eugene "Gene" F. May. May was a civilian and the chief test pilot for Douglas Aircraft. May had conducted the first flight of all three examples of the jet-powered D-558-1 Skystreak transonic research plane. Even as additional US Navy and NACA pilots were trained on the plane, May remained heavily involved in the flight program and regularly flew test missions. Gene May first took the Skystreak to supersonic speeds on 29 September 1948 when he reached Mach 1.01 while in a 35 dive. No other supersonic flights were ever attempted by this aircraft though it set the stage for even more impressive feats soon to be achieved by the improved D-558-2, including the first flight to Mach 2.

The ninth pilot to fly at supersonic speeds was another civilian, this one a NACA test pilot flying the X-1. Robert A. Champine was an aeronautical engineer and researcher who later became a naval aviator during World War II. Following the war, Champine approached NACA about becoming a test pilot, but the organization preferred to hire him as a scientist. NACA eventually relented and Champine was asked to replace Howard Lilly as a test pilot on the X-1, D-558-1 Skystreak, and D-558-2 Skyrocket programs. Champine successfully completed 13 X-1 flights to explore spanwise flow and handling qualities at transonic speeds. He briefly exceeded Mach 1.0 during his fourth mission on 2 December 1948, the 101st flight of the X-1.

NACA X-1 test pilots Bob Champine and Herb Hoover
NACA X-1 test pilots Bob Champine and Herb Hoover

Eager to join the community of high performance jets, the Soviet Union also launched its own research programs into supersonic flight following World War II. Much of this research was performed by the Lavochkin design bureau that designed a series of jet prototypes during the mid-1940s. Among these advanced test aircraft was the La-176 swept-wing plane. It was aboard the La-176 that test pilot I. E. Fedorov became the first Soviet supersonic pilot. Fedorov accomplished this feat by reaching Mach 1.0 during a shallow dive on 26 December 1948.

One final honorable mention on our list of the first supersonic pilots is another pilot of (you guessed it) the Bell X-1 research plane. Jackie "Jack" L. Ridley was a mechanical engineer who enlisted in the Army and became a pilot in 1942. His engineering background made Ridley well suited to conducting acceptance tests of the B-24, B-32, and B-36 bombers. He also received further training at the Army Air Forces School of Engineering and obtained a masters degree in aeronautical engineering from the California Institute of Technology. By 1946, Ridley had completed flight test pilot training, and he was appointed project engineer for the X-1 in 1947. Ridley's primary responsibility was to analyze the test data collected during flight, and he was also the one who suggested that the plane's entire horizontal stabilizer be deflected at transonic speeds to overcome a dangerous loss of elevator effectiveness that Yeager had discovered near Mach 1.

Chuck Yeager and Jack Ridley next to the X-1 and its B-29 mother plane
Chuck Yeager and Jack Ridley next to the X-1 and its B-29 mother plane

Ridley also flew the X-1 four times and reached Mach 1.23 during his very first flight on 11 March 1949, the 105th test flight of the program. Ridley went on to support a wide variety of Air Force flight test programs and ultimately rose to become chief of the Flight Test Engineering Laboratory. Unfortunately, Jack Ridley was killed in 1957 when the C-47 transport plane he was aboard struck a mountainside in Japan.

This listing of the first supersonic pilots that we have assembled is summarized in the following table.

First Supersonic Pilots
Order Name Nationality Organization Aircraft Date
1. Charles "Chuck" Yeager USA USAF X-1 #1 14 October 1947
2. James T. Fitzgerald, Jr. USA USAF X-1 #1 24 February 1948
3. Herbert "Herb" Hoover USA NACA X-1 #2 10 March 1948
4. Howard Lilly USA NACA X-1 #2 31 March 1948
5. George Welch USA North American Aviation XP-86 26 April 1948
6. Gustav "Gus" Lundquist USA USAF X-1 #1 29 April 1948
7. John Derry UK de Havilland D.H.108 VW120 9 September 1948
8. Eugene May USA Douglas Aircraft D-558-1 #1 29 September 1948
9. Robert "Bob" Champine USA NACA X-1 #2 2 December 1948
10. I. E. Fedorov USSR Soviet Air Force La-176 26 December 1948
11. Jackie "Jack" Ridley USA USAF X-1 #1 11 March 1949

While we have also attempted to locate information on your father Jimmy Fry, we have so far been unable to find any references to him in connection to high-speed flight.
- answer by Molly Swanson, 26 March 2006

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