Test pilot and retired Army Air Forces Major George Welch dove a prototype North American F-86 Sabre jet past Mach 1 two weeks before the official “in level flight” record of the experimental Bell X-1.
Sonic booms were heard from the transonic fighter’s tests in several places in the desert test range for some time.
But Welch’s speed record flight was not an official attempt and was achieved in a dive.
The military and governmental authorities who backed the Bell X-1 experimental program agreed there was no printable story about the new and secret military fighter and its amazing capabilities.
Especially when flown by a hotshot civilian pilot on a tear.
In addition, the X-1’s successful supersonic pilot-since 14 October 1947, was Charles Elwood “Chuck” Yeager, a famous WWII hero and Ace, with country boy charm and good old boy hunting and fishing connections.
Yeager’s long career also helped ensure his fame while Welch’s early death made him forgotten.
George Welch died in 1954 age 36, while testing the Sabre jet’s descendant the F-100 Super Sabre, first of the ‘Century Series’ planes supersonic capable “in level flight”, and first Mach 1 aircraft in operational service.*
Gen. Yeager and all the original astronauts too were lucky to escape alive from the test pilot job.
Later in his career Gen. Yeager flew the F-100D extensively, the plane George Welch died testing.
Portrait of George Welch via Wikipedia: all other images by todgermanica.com
*Probably. From famously secretive Russia, the MiG 19 (NATO reporting name Farmer) is another possibility, we’ll never know.
Unless noted, all text/images produced by todgermanica.com. Noncommercial use free with attribution.
welch was first. I HAVE HIS LOG BOOKS.
Thanks for the comment. I might have started blogging to write that post. I got tired of the ‘controversial’ and famously litigious Gen. Yeager constantly being cited as ‘breaking the sound barrier’ by being the first to ‘fly faster than the speed of sound’, forgetting to add…’in level flight’.
I have no evidence that the F-86’s test pilot actually put the plane in a shallow dive to make sonic booms except reports of booms in the desert at that time, but it was routinely done by Air Force service pilots later on so it stands to reason to was done by Welch first.
My only question would be the timing, since per Wikipedia “On October 14, 1947, less than a month after the US Air Force became a separate service, Yeager broke the sound barrier while flying X-1-1 (serial #46-062).” I’d love to see the page of Welch’s logbook on the day he did it.
This is not to denigrate Gen. Yeager’s feat unduly, just to point out that apparently history has overlooked Welch’s place in it. Test pilot work can be deadly, the F-106 almost killed Yeager and the F-100 did kill Welch, nobody can question their bravery.
Thanks again for the comment. Love your C-121 Lockheed Connie work.
Read Chasing the Demon. Likely Welch did exceed the speed of sound in the 86. Politics at the time prevented him from getting the credit.
I think I took up blogging to write this post though it took me years to get around to it. Talk about having the ‘right stuff’, George Welch deserves to have a film made of his life. I think the serving officer credited with breaking the ‘sound barrier’ had more interest in huntin’ and fishin’ with his well connected cronies than Air Force duties. Both were WWII heroes and test pilots but, as you note, the new USAF were determined to highlight the X-1 and it’s hero pilot. While the ability of the F-86 to go sonic in a dive was top secret, to be protected from soviet and Chinese spying. The Sabre had to dive to go sonic though and the speed attained was unofficial- though sonic booms were heard. The famous recently deceased Oroville, CA resident got the credit for being the first to cross the line, but he didn’t win, he ‘placed’. Second place. Both pilots were brave and war heroes, the dangers were similar. But one is lauded and sainted while the other one, long dead, is forgotten. Historians should put an astirisk next to the record flight data, saying first beyond sonic speed ‘…in level flight’. But it is never done. Now I hope I don’t get sued. Thanks for the comment and the reading suggestion.