Chasing The Demon: A Secret History Of The Quest For The Sound Barrier, And The Band Of American Aces Who Conquered It
This book should have been titled: Chasing the Swallow, and subtitled: The history of western civilization during the first half of the twentieth century as seen through aviation. Where was Hampton’s editor? This book is too wide-ranging. The book is almost over by the time he gets to the X-1. There is a lot of pre-history covered before Chuck Yeager gets into the Bell X-1. That said I found Hampton’s stories to be interesting. He managed to find some details that I hadn’t hear a hundred times before. The aircraft stories were particularly interesting. (See below) There was some evidence to suggest the German Messerschmitt Me 262 ‘Swallow’ could have broken the sound barrier during WW-II, but there is additional evidence that the plane (and pilot) would not have survived. What is really fascinating is the F-86 Sabre while it was being tested probably broke the sound barrier.. before the X-1. And as it was pointed out, the Sabre took off and landed under its own power. But North American didn’t want the USAF and Bell to look bad. While Bell was testing the X-1 years earlier they could have broken the sound barrier, but the Army Air Corp., told them not to. Further more, Mills in the UK, had designed the M.52 with a jet engine that would probably have approached 1,000 mph before either aircraft got off the ground. But the program was canceled just before testing was to commence. The British were way ahead of us, and they shared their notes.
I wish Hampton had spent more time on record breaking aircraft rather than on back history. Still I enjoyed reading the book.
Amazon Book Preview of “Chasing The Demon”
Excerpts from the book:
The Wright brothers intended to fly.
And so they did.
By December 1903, just after Samuel Langley had given up on his Great Aerodrome, Orville and Wilbur solved their longitudinal and lateral control issues and were ready to take their newly christened Wright Flyer into the air. On December 14, the brothers flipped a coin and Wilbur won the toss. Perched atop the dunes at Kill Devil Hills, the aircraft was fixed to a rail and angled slightly downward. Starting the engine, a 12-horse-power, gas-powered, four-cylinder design of their own, Wilbur raced down the incline and into the air.
Over-pulling, he got the nose too high, stalled, and subsequently crashed, causing enough damage for three days of repairs, but with no injury to himself December 17 dawned with a cold, gusty wind blowing over the sand. At 10:30 a.m., Orville Wright shook hands with his brother, started the engine, and stared at the dunes toward either death or immortality. Releasing the restraining line at 10:30, the aircraft puttered down the rail into a 27 mph headwind with Wilbur running alongside holding one wing for balance. Suddenly, after a short forty feet, the Flyer wobbled into the air and the volunteers gathered along the beach began cheering.
Twelve seconds and 120 feet later Orville touched down after completing the first manned, controlled flight of a heavier-than-air craft under its own power. Ecstatic, the brothers swapped places for two more flights and at noon, with Wilbur at the controls, the Flyer remained airborne for 59 seconds and covered an astonishing 852 feet. One of the volunteers summed up the event, and man’s true entrance into aviation, by shouting, “They did it! They did it! Damned if they didn’t fly!”
In fact, many programs and operations were put into play toward the end of the ware precisely to collect advanced technology, and the scientists who created it. Once such operation was LUSTY (LUftwaffe Secret TechnologY), a U.S. Army Air Force initiative organized by Exploitation Division at Wright Field, where Ken Chilstrom, Gelen Edwards, Gus Lunsquist, and other first-rate test pilots were now stationed. LUSTY was divided into two main teams, Team Two was to collect documents and round up any scientists while Team One, working from top-secret “black lists,” scooped up any aircraft and weapons they could find.
Colonel Harold Watson, chief of intelligence (T–2) at Wright Field, led Team One into Germany as the war ended. A flamboyant former test pilot with a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering, he further divided his team into two branches, one to pick up rockets and piston-engine aircraft while the other branch went after any jets. Watson’s Whizzers, as they were called, acquired a veritable treasure trove of Luftwaffe secrets. These included an Arado 234, the world’s first high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft and jet bomber, a Dornier 335, some Me 262s, the Me 163 Komet, and even a rare surviving Natter. Ten Me 262s were flown across Germany and through France to Querqueville Airfield outside Cherbourg, where they were loaded onto HMS Reaper an escort carrier, and shipped to the United States.
In the meantime, Ken Chilstrom had happily spent his first six months home as the maintenance officer for the Flight Test Division. In this position he got to fly every aircraft that had been in for maintenance, building up his flying time and impressing Major Chris Petrie, the chief of the Fighter Test Section, with his skill and quiet, unassuming demeanor. When there was an opening in the Performance Section, Ken was able to slide right in. It was here that he met Colonel Harold Watson and began flying some of the exotic captured aircraft the Whizzers and others had brought back. These included the Me 262, an A6M “Zero,” the XP–59 Airacomet, and Chilstrom’s favorite, the Focke-Wulf Fw 190.
“It was all stopwatches and knee cards,” Ken recollects. “Nothing fancy and we had no formal training as test pilots because there was no such thing in 1944.” This was a situation soon to be remedied, and in September the Engineering Flight Test School was established at nearby Vandalia airport, graduating the inaugural class in 1945. Ken’s classmates included Dick Bong, America’s highest-scoring ace, Tony LeVier, Fred Ascani, and Glen Edwards, with whom he shared a house.
Edwards had graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in chemical engineering and gotten into the Army Air Corps five months before Pearl Harbor. Like Ken Chilstrom, Edwards fought in North Africa, Tunisia, and Sicily, though the Canadian native flew the A–20 Havoc light bomber. Coming home with four Distinguished Flying Crosses in December 1943, Edwards would meet up with Chilstrom in 1944 at Wright Field. “Glen was my best friend,” Ken recalls wistfully. “He was a wonderful pilot and all-around great guy.”
It became apparent to everyone that the advanced German aviation programs were far ahead of the Allies in terms of aerodynamics, there were swept wings, including a forward-swept wing, vertical tails, and a host of other innovative applications backed by stacks of wind tunnel data and practical flying test experience. The Germans were incorporating bubble canopies, ejection seats, and pressurized cockpits into their aircraft. Though scores of designs were captured, two in particular bear discussion for the impact they had on postwar development and the quest for supersonic flight.
Messerschmitt’s P.1101 arose from the 1944 Emergency Fighter Program and was designed around the smallest, lightest airframe possible paired with the most powerful engine available: the Heinkel HeS 011 turbojet. With its tricycle landing gear and high tailplane, the P.1101 was intended as a sleek, deadly successor to the Me 262. The swept, shoulder-mounted wings were ground adjustable between 35 and 45 degrees, which the Germans considered vital for raising the critical Mach number and reducing the effects of transonic shock waves–another breakthrough as yet unrealized in America or Britain. With its blunt, nose-mounted intake and bubble canopy the Messerschmitt looked like a stouter, older brother to North American’s premier jet lighter: the North American Sabre. In fact, a nearly completed P.1101 prototype was discovered at Messerschmitt’s project facility in Oberammergau, and much of the German data would be used to refine the Sabre’s design.
The other aircraft of note was Focke-Wulf’s Ta 183. Designed by Hans Multhopp as a single-seat, single-engine Fighter, the 183 was intended, from its inception, to operate in the transonic region. Multhopp calculated that this not only necessitated a pronounced sweep, but also very thin wings that would focus the shock wave outboard away from the aircraft. Control would be more stable this way and was further enhanced by a high tailplane that kept the rear surfaces above the burbling transonic wake. The vertical fin was swept back 60 degrees and topped by a dihedral (upward angle) tailplane. It also incorporated elevons, a relatively large control surface on the wing’s trailing edge that combined the functions of elevator and aileron.
Stubbier than the P.1101, the 183 was heavier and faster with a top design speed of 593 miles per hour. Its thin wings could not support interior armament so, like the Messerschmitt (and the Sabre), cannons were to be nose mounted on either side of the intake. One can see shades of the future Soviet MiG–15 in its design, and this is hardly surprising as the Russians also took whatever advanced technology they could, including most of the V–2 rocket program. Given the scope of available technology, German ingeniousness was futuristic and a decade ahead of its time. No less impressive was that even faced with constant bombing, a chronic shortage of materials, and, for those realistic enough to admit it, a lost war, these various programs endured until the very end.
But German limitations, namely their jet engine manufacturing issues, were as staggering as their successes and in this area the Allies were well ahead. Engines like the Rolls-Royce Der vent V, basically a powerful, polished derivative of Frank Whittle’s W.2B, used Nimonic 80, a high-temperature resistant alloy, for its turbine blades and mated the engine with Gloster’s Meteor. Rolls-Royce also utilized the Lockheed YP–80 as a test bed for its improved Nene engine, then sold it under license to Pratt & Whitney for use in the U.S. Navy’s Grumman F9F Panther.
Britain, however, under a new government, was determined to cut budgets and fell rapidly behind after the war. The Miles M.52. supersonic program was scrapped and the Americans, specifically Bell Aircraft, were able to use the British data to complete its X–1 rocket plane. What truly spurred U.S. development from 1945 onward was the synthesis of German aerodynamics with initial British test data and American government financial backing. The impact of German technolog and design would be immediately felt within both Eastern and Western aerodynamic spheres. Interestingly, some innovations, like the swept wing, were independently discovered, albeit a decade late.
Bell’s X–1 was finally up again in the California sunshine on August 29, 1947. The Reaction Motors rocket engine had been installed and today was the Army’s first powered flight. All pilots flying new aircraft get at least one “Fam flight,” a familiarization flight to put all the ground school instruction into perspective. Yeager had glided the X–1, but never used it under power until today. The B–29 lumbered carefully off the runway and climbed up to 25,000 feet with two chase planes in formation. After all the preflight checks were done, Bob Cardenas nosed the big bomber into a shallow dive, and at 255 miles per hour passing 21,000 feet the little orange rocket plane detached.
The flight test called for a series of maneuvers within the known flight envelope defined the previous year by Slick Goodlin. Yeager was to get “a feel” for the aircraft under power, and definitely not exceed 0.82. Mach. Bell’s Dick Frost was flying a P–80 in the low chase position when Chuck lit off the first of four rocket chambers. Five seconds later he ignited the Number Two rocket while shutting down Number One, then lit off Number Three after switching off Number Two. According to James O. Young of the Air Force Flight Test Center History Office “to Frost’s utter amazement and displeasure [Yeager] deviated from the flight plan and executed a slow roll.”
The problem with this, other than intentionally and unprofessionally again violating the test procedure, was that the XLR–11 had a safety cutoff that automatically shut the motor down if pressure in the liquid oxygen (lox) tank dropped beyond a certain level, which it did at zero g’s during Yeager’s roll. Everyone watched as Chuck relit the motor, then rocketed upward to the test altitude of 45,000 feet. After Boyd’s lecture, and following his unplanned flame-out, what happened next was truly astonishing. Yeager shut down the motor, rolled over, and dove for the runway seven miles below him. Radios exploded as the other airborne pilots wanted to know what in the hell he was doing. Again, utterly disregarding the test plan, Hight discipline, and good sense, Chuck had decided “to show the brass down there a real airplane,” as he later wrote. Leveling off 2,700 feet over Muroc and at 0.8 Mach, Yeager lit off all four chambers again, roared down the runway over lots of wide eyes, then streaked up out of sight. Getting back to 35,000 feet, the rockets ran dry and he then glided down to land.
No one, except Chuck, was happy about this. The NACA team, especially Walt Williams, and Dick Frost from Bell, thought Yeager was undisciplined. Frost, as a test pilot himself, was thoroughly displeased and chewed the young officer out. Even Jack Ridley, close as he was to Chuck, could not explain away his friend’s recklessness and disregard for test procedures. “He [Yeager] didn’t have a lot of test experience,” Ken Chilstrom remembers. “But Al Boyd thought that didn’t really matter for what had to be done with the X–1. We just needed someone to ride it through the so-called sound barrier, and Yeager could do that all right.”
Boyd was once again an unhappy man.