Science, Science and Tech

Breaking the sound barrier

If you’ve been even remotely connected to the internet over the past few weeks, you’ll no doubt have heard of Felix Baumgartner, the Austrian maverick who broke into the history books on 14 October 2012 by becoming the first human to break the sound barrier without mechanical assistance, freefalling from 128’000 feet from a custom-built capsule.

Breaking sound barrier nothing new 1

As he fell, Baumgartner reached speeds touching on 833mph, also known as Mach 1.24, nearly half as fast again as the speed of sound. But did you know his achievement comes exactly 65 years after humans first broke the sound barrier?

Chuck Yeager was an American fighter pilot who fought in the second world war, and whose experience, nerve and 270 hours of flying combat missions meant that, in June 1947, he was chosen as the first man to try to fly through the sound barrier. Rather like Baumgartner’s custom-built pressurised capsule, the Stratos, the Bell X-1 aircraft was specially adapted to the task in hand.

It was modelled after the shape of a .50 calibre bullet, made to withstand forces in excess of 18G, and rather than taking off like a conventional jet had to be dropped from the belly of a modified B-29 Bomber.

After four months, eight test flights and two broken ribs, Yeager was ready for the real thing. On 14 October 1947, Yeager and his plane were dropped from the bomb bay, levelled off at 42,000 feet, and opened the taps. Just a few short minutes later, Chuck Yeager became the first human to travel faster than the speed of sound.

His flight instruments clocked him at his fastest speed of Mach 1.06, nearly 700mph. In June 1948, when the test flight became public knowledge, Yeager became known as “The Fastest Man Alive.”

Since he first set that record, the sound barrier has been broken many more times and at greater speeds, often by Yeager himself, who managed a flight five years later in which he hit Mach 2.44, over 1,650 mph.

Now Baumgartner has managed to break the original record without even using an aeroplane. Makes you curious about how fast we’ll be travelling in another 65 years’ time.


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September 2021
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