A Distant Rumble of Thunder:” The Story of the Bell X-1
In the history of man’s ascent into the heavens, there are certain names, phrases, and
dates that stick. Kitty Hawk. “One small step for man…” October 14th 1947. That was the fateful
day that a man had intentionally surpassed the supersonic mark. The pilot was a man named
Chuck Yeager, a synthesis of courage and aeronautical prowess, and the plane was the Bell X-1,
an orange bullet of a plane. Yeager managed to make history and set the stage for much that
The man, Captain Chuck Yeager, was born in West Virginia. He enlisted in the Army Air
Force in 1941, flying in a number of missions in the European theater of WWII. He had an
aptitude for it, because by the end of the war, “he had thirteen and a half kills,” at the tender age
of 22 (Wolfe 32). After the war, he trained to become a test pilot, and was selected to go to a
base in the boondocks of California, Muroc Field. Tom Wolfe describes the area as “some fossil
landscape that had long since been left behind by the rest of terrestrial evolution,” with dried lake
beds that stretched on to the horizon that could serve as natural landing fields (23-24).
The plane Yeager was flying was the Bell X-1. Painted vibrantly orange, the plane’s
fuselage was shaped like a fifty-caliber bullet, as a .50-cal’s bullet was “proven to be stable at
supersonic speeds” (Yeager and Cardenas 14). Anyone entering the airplane was entering at their
own risk; the plane’s cockpit was entered from the side instead of the top; therefore, there was no
real effective way to bail out of the airplane if anything went wrong. Moreover, the plane’s
rocket fuel had to be kept within a tight range of five psi to achieve maximum thrust without
exploding the plane. Thus, to use an analogy, the Bell X-1 was a spirited horse that could do
what she was supposed to do, but needed a steady and experienced hand. Enter Yeager.
Pilot, plane, and field have come together. Over a series of flights,...