THE X-PLANES: 50 YEARS OF HIGH DESERT "RIGHT STUFF"
October 10, 1996
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A half-century ago this month, NASA1s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), helped launch 50 years of high desert "right stuff" with the first flight of the Bell X-1 aircraft over Southern California1s Antelope Valley.
On Oct. 11, 1946, Chalmers "Slick" Goodlin, chief pilot for the Bell Aircraft Corp., flew an unpowered, 7-minute glide test of the second X-1, serial number 46-063, over Muroc, Calif. -- now the site of Edwards Air Force Base and NASA1s Dryden Flight Research Center. Glide tests were important for studying landing characteristics of the X-1s, as all of those aircraft landed as gliders after their fuel was exhausted.
The second X-1 was the sister ship to vehicle No. 1, serial number 46-062, "Glamorous Glennis," which is remembered as the first aircraft to break the sound "barrier" on Oct. 14, 1947. "The X-1 program provided NACA with the first full-scale tool that allowed it to explore transonic aerodynamics," said Jay Miller, author of "The X-Planes: X-1 to X-31." Researchers and engineers on the X-1 program -- a joint effort between Bell Aircraft Corporation, Buffalo, N.Y., the United States Army Air Forces and NACA -- were especially interested in the effects of transonic speeds on the stability and control of aircraft.
The Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, Hampton, Va., designed the instrumentation requirements for the craft, which included rate-of-turn recorders, pressure-distribution orifices on the wings and tail and pedal-force transmitters, as well as other data-gathering devices. From research acquired during earlier tests, the committee proposed installing a movable horizontal stabilizer. This element became crucial when Ship No. 1 reached Mach .94 and its elevators lost their effectiveness. So important was the all-movable horizontal stabilizer that virtually every transonic and supersonic aircraft since that time has had one.
Bell manufactured three first-generation X-1s, originally designated the XS-1s. Ship No. 1 flew the first unpowered glide tests at Pinecastle Army Airfield, near Orlando, Fla., in early 1946; that phase ended in March of that year, and the program was relocated to Muroc.
"The move was a logistics issue as much as anything; Pinecastle was not suitable," Miller said. A move to the remote California desert ensured the project team could maintain secrecy, he said, an important issue considering the project was classified at the time.
In addition, Muroc had an expansive landing area, thanks to the surrounding dry lakebeds, and better visibility. "The plane1s high sink rate and the problems of keeping the plane in sight amid Florida1s frequent clouds added two more votes in favor of the [Army Air Forces1] decision to go to Muroc," historian-author Richard Hallion wrote in his book, "On the Frontier: Flight Research at Dryden, 1946-1981."
Walter C. Williams, an NACA engineer and later the first director of what would become Dryden, led the team of five engineers, who arrived at the Muroc site 50 years ago on Sept. 30. Williams had helped implement the flight-path tracking system during the Pinecastle flights, and, at Muroc, he and his team set up similar equipment, including two SCR-584 radar. Although the X-1 project most often is associated with the United States Air Force, Williams and his NACA team provided essential hands-on support during the program. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman awarded the Collier Trophy to NACA1s John Stack, as well as Bell1s Larry Bell and the Air Force1s Chuck Yeager, emphasizing the partnership that existed among the three groups.
The decision to move to Muroc immediately proved to be a wise one. During the first glide flight on Oct. 11, Goodlin landed Ship No. 2 almost halfway down the 6,500-foot runway, continued off the runway and rolled 4,500 feet over the dry lakebed. On Sept. 25, 1947, the Air Force officially turned ship No. 2 over to the NACA. NACA pilot Herbert Hoover became the first civilian to fly an X-1 supersonically on March 10, 1948 -- at the controls of NACA1s ship No. 2.
NACA later converted the second X-1 into the X-1E, which had thinner wings than the original aircraft, a modified canopy and other upgrades. The first X-1 ever to fly in the Antelope Valley now stands in front of NASA Dryden1s headquarters, Building 4800, as the modified X-1E. That aircraft became the last of the X-1s ever to fly on Nov. 6, 1958, with NACA pilot Joe Walker at the controls. The X-1 project not only provided data never before available about the behavior of aircraft at transonic speeds, but also pioneered the test methods that Dryden researchers have used for 50 years of successful flight research. The X-1 program proved the ability of flight research to "separate the real from the imagined." In the case of supersonic flight, the X-1 program proved the perceived sound "barrier" was actually no barrier at all.
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