After the surrender of Japan, many major aircraft contracts were greatly scaled back or cancelled outright. Fortunately, North American Aviation had a diversity of contracts and most projects continued (albeit at significantly reduced numbers). Of the 2,000 P-51H fighters on order, only 555 would be built. The P-51M (a Dallas built variant of the P-51H) was simply cancelled. North American’s XP-82 Twin Mustang program continued on although it would be cut back as well. Unfortunately, the XP-82 suffered some unexpected development woes, and combined with the XSN2J program, George Welch found himself a very busy test pilot. Welch gained his first jet fighter experience flying the XFJ-1 destined for the Navy. Bestowed with the name Fury, the XFJ-1 was a straight-wing fighter that proved to be rather slower than had been hoped. Being somewhat disappointed, the Navy would cut back its order to just thirty examples. Meanwhile, the Army Air Force expressed an interest in a swept-wing version proposed by North American. Benefiting from research data captured in Germany, NA’s design team, headed by Lee Atwood, conducted extensive wind tunnel testing and eventually produced a design featuring a wing sweep of 35 degrees. Very much impressed by the data and design (especially when compared to the straight-wing design that they were initially offered), an order was placed for three prototypes to be designated the XP-86, and a contract was signed in September of 1945.
As the XP-86 was being completed, George Welch had already been designated to make the first series of test flights. Welch spent a considerable amount of his time in the engineering offices located at North American Aviation’s Inglewood facility. Here he would grill the design team about the new fighter’s expected stability and handling. Welch also quizzed the team about the prototype’s potential maximum speed. Being informed that the new fighter, now called the Sabre, should be able to handle 650 knots, Welch formulated a plan in his mind that had it been known, would have caused his employer many a sleepless night.
After a series of extensive ground tests, resplendent in its polished aluminum skin, the XP-86 was disassembled and trucked to Muroc Field (later renamed Edwards Air Force Base). On September 18, 1947, Stuart Symington took the oath of office as the first Secretary of the new, independent United States Air Force. Before the XP-86 was ready for its first taxi tests, Symington made a point of notifying North American that he expected them not to steal any thunder from the new Air Force’s pet research project, the rocket powered Bell XS-1. Symington’s orders were explicit. Having been briefed that the XP-86 was capable of exceeding Mach 1 in a dive, the Secretary fully expected that North American Aviation would wait until the XS-1 had made its mark in history before they claimed their portion of the supersonic sweepstakes. Besides, Larry Bell had already complained to the President about North American plotting to upstage his rocket plane.
Unfortunately, the politics behind the scenes were totally lost on Welch. Not only did he not care one whit about Symington or his edict; Welch was a civilian and not employed by the Government. Moreover, George had long since demonstrated a tendency toward independence. Knowing the potential of the Sabre, there was no way that Welch could pass up an opportunity to explore its limits, and perhaps, gain some personal retaliation for the P-39 “Iron Dog”, by sticking it to the guys at Bell.
With the XP-86 reassembled at Muroc, Welch went to work on a series of taxi tests designed to fully explore ground handling right up to takeoff speed. These tests were done on the morning of September 29. Getting an early start, the taxi runs were completed by 10 AM. Everyone was satisfied with the results. Yet, a minor fuel leak promised to keep the mechanics busy for the rest of the day.
That evening, Welch headed for his room at Pancho’s Fly Inn (later renamed Happy Bottom Riding Club) where he normally stayed when at Muroc. A favorite hangout for both the North American and Bell gangs, as well as most of the test pilots on the base, Pancho’s was the place to learn what everyone else was up to. The owner of the Fly Inn, Pancho Barnes, was a rough and tumble aviatrix who had specialized in air racing and Hollywood stunt flying; she had cultivated friendships across a broad spectrum of personalities. These included Jimmy Doolittle and Mae West, to name but two. Built like a linebacker, Pancho was a larger than life personality who had the delicate charm and manners of a drunken cavalry trooper. Naturally, everyone loved Pancho, who all realized as a soft touch for pilots, especially Yeager, who she adored.
Welch went for dinner and a beer, and as was his habit, he spoke with Millie Palmer, a local girl who made Pancho’s her home away from home. Millie was expert at picking up tidbits of information about the various projects at Muroc. Millie mentioned that the Bell folks didn’t expect to be flying before the end of the week. Welch confided his plan to make a supersonic dive during the Sabre’s first flight on Wednesday, October 1. George explained to Millie what she should look for. “A sharp boom, like a clap of thunder. If you hear that, be sure to write down the time, what it sounded like, the reaction from others, stuff like that.”
Right on schedule, the Sabre was ready for its first flight early Wednesday morning. After an uneventful takeoff from the dry lakebed, Welch joined up with his chase plane. The chase pilot today was Bob Chilton in a P-82 Twin Mustang. Riding in the P-82’s right cockpit was a cameraman, assigned to record the flight. Chilton eased the twin engine fighter below the Sabre to inspect the underside.
“George, your main gear doors aren’t shut.”
“I’ll put them down again.”
“The mains are down now, but the nose gear is only halfway down.”
Cycling the gear handle to the up position once again, George watched as all the gear flags indicated up and locked.
“All appear to be up and locked,” Chilton announced.
Welch pushed the throttle up to full power and the Sabre surged forward. “Don’t go away, Bob. I just want to feel it out a bit.”
Easing back on the stick, Welch began a steady rate climb at just under 350 mph. Zooming up at over 4,800 feet per minute; it took but a few minutes to reach 35,000 feet. As he leveled off, airspeed quickly increased to 370 mph. After a double-check of his instruments, Welch rolled into a 40 degree dive, pointing the nose west, directly at Pancho’s Fly Inn, several miles away.
The airspeed indicator wound up to about 405 mph, and seemed to get stuck there. Yet, there was no doubt that the XP-86 was still accelerating. Everything felt normal, until passing below 30,000 feet where a tendency to roll needed some minor correction. George pushed the nose over a bit more. Then, suddenly, the airspeed indicator jumped beyond 470 mph and continued to go up. Passing 25,000 feet, Welch eased back on the stick and pulled back the throttle. Once again, there was a bit of wing roll and the airspeed indicator jumped back from 520 to 450 mph (520 mph indicated translates to 720 mph true at this altitude, uncorrected).
Contacting Chilton, Welch joined up with the P-82 as it was time to head back to Muroc. Due to ongoing rigging, the speed brakes had been disabled and were not available. This would complicate the landing approach because jet fighters took quite a while to scrub off airspeed, not having a propeller functioning as a giant, circular air brake. Descending towards the lakebed, Chilton slipped underneath the Sabre as Welch slowed and lowered the landing gear. Once again, the main gear locked down. The nose gear, however, refused to extend beyond the halfway position. Welch cycled the gear up and down several times to no avail. He tried the emergency pump. That too failed to push the nose strut into position. Radio discussions with the North American engineers on the ground produced no solution. Welch even tried pulling several Gs of loading. Nothing worked. With fuel rapidly becoming an issue, Welch elected to make a long, straight-in approach. Touching down at 140 mph, Welch trimmed the nose full up, intending to hold it up as long as possible. Racing alongside the Sabre were crash trucks and a pickup with a motion picture camera. As the Sabre’s speed dipped below 90 mph, Welch began easing the nose down. Just then, the nose gear snapped down and locked in place. The wheel touched, and the XP-86 rolled out normally. George’s luck had held again.
Prior to heading back to North American to brief the engineers, George telephoned Millie Palmer. Excitedly, Millie related that a terribly loud ba-boom had nearly blown her out of bed. The time was noted and it corresponded to George’s dive. “Pancho”, Millie related, “is really pissed. You know how she feels about Yeager.” Apparently, Pancho claimed the boom was a result of mining operations going on 30 miles away to the north. Of course, no one had previously heard any mining explosions, nor could that account for rattling windows only on the east facing side of the Fly Inn. Welch chuckled and swore Millie to secrecy.
After briefing the engineering team at North American, Welch tracked down Ed Horkey. There were some “funny” instrument readings during the dive, and George was looking for some answers.
Test pilot Blackie Blackburn describes the conversation:
“I started at about 290 knots”, Welch explained. “In no time I’m at 350. I’m still going down, and I’m still accelerating, but the airspeed indicator seems stuck like there’s some kind of obstruction in the pitot tube, I push over a little steeper and by this time I’m going through 30,000 feet. All of a sudden, the airspeed needle flips to 440 knots. The aircraft feels fine, no funny noises, no vibration. Wanted to roll to the left, but no big deal. Still, I leveled out at 25,000 and came back on the power. The airspeed needle flicked back to 390. Whadya think?”
“What did the flight recorder look like?”
“It wasn’t on the flight card, I was just feeling it out, so I wasn’t running the camera. Anyway, there wasn’t anything wrong with the airspeed system. They checked it out after I landed.”
Horkey guessed that Welch had run into a previously unknown Mach effect. Indeed he had. What Welch had observed was a phenomenon that would later be called, “Mach jump”. Today, “Mach jump” is generally considered solid evidence of speeds in excess of Mach 1. Of course, on October 1, 1947, no had ever seen it before.
Welch made the second and third flights with the landing gear mechanically locked in the down position. The revised and more powerful hydraulic cylinder for the nose gear had not yet arrived. So, the gear was bolted down and the gear lever was safety wired in the down position. However, there was another reason for bolting down the landing gear. Welch’s ba-boom had also hammered Muroc. Without saying so, the Bell and NACA people were generally unhappy about the rumors comsuming much of the chit-chat on the base. The XS-1 had still failed to push beyond Mach .98. The chatter around the base was that the XP-86 was responsible for the boom that had rattled windows and scared the hell out of everyone. People had raced outside looking for the telltale plume of black smoke that proclaimed the end of an aircraft, and maybe its pilot. But, there was no smoke. There was no crash. The only excitement centered on the crash trucks racing out to meet the swept-wing Sabre as it returned. All in all, it looked as if Welch had pulled the feet out from under XS-1 program. Even though there was no official statement from North American, despite unconvincing denials by Sabre team, the word was out at Muroc. Welch and the XP-86 had gone supersonic.
As soon as Welch landed after his second low speed flight in the “fixed gear” XP-86, he was informed that his wife Jan had gone into labor with their first child. Welch flew the company plane up to Los Angeles, but arrived after his son had been born. That evening, Jan phoned her family to announce the birth of Gilles, and of course, tell them about George breaking the sound barrier. Years later, Jan’s brother Jimmy would recall that he could not determine if Jan was more excited about her new baby, or her husband’s supersonic adventure.
The XP-86 was being prepared for its fourth flight. Again, despite replacing the nose gear hydraulic cylinder, the schedule called for this flight to be made with the landing still bolted down. Welch objected. He argued that there was no solid reasoning for this, and flying with the gear bolted down was downright dangerous. He was right. Without the ability to raise the landing gear, an engine failure could be fatal. Welch argued that the Sabre “glides like a rock” with the wheels down. Finally it was agreed that the gear would be unbolted and functional, but the flight test parameters would remain unchanged.
On the morning of October 14, Chilton and Welch discussed how they could disguise another supersonic dive. They decided to maintain a constant chatter on the radio, transmitting test results for tests completed early in the flight. That might work, but there was no way to disguise the sonic boom. It was generally understood that later in the morning, Yeager and the XS-1 would be trying for Mach 1. But, there was still time for one dive before the official title was handed to Yeager.
Taking off from the lakebed, Welch immediately recognized that he had a problem. The airspeed indicator needle was stuck on zero. Gauging his speed, Welch brought the Sabre down and was met by the ground crew. The problem was found and fixed within minutes. During preflight calibration, the pitot tube line had been disconnected. Someone had failed to reconnect it. Another 30 minutes went by while the plane’s fuel was topped off. Finally, just before 9 AM, the Sabre roared off the desert runway and climbed into the bright azure sky.
Climbing out to 10,000 feet, Welch performed all of the low speed maneuvers and tests called for on the flight test card. Yet, he reported only half the results. Retracting the landing gear, he waited until Chilton gave him a thumbs-up that all looked normal. Advancing the throttle to full power, he eased the Sabre into a climb and soared up to 37,000 feet. As he climbed, George read out the second half of the low speed test results. Leveling off, he checked his instruments one final time. As he did on his first dive, Welch rolled the Sabre into a 40 degree dive and pointed the nose directly at Pancho’s. As the jet accelerated, he read out the last of the test results. Just like the first dive, a little wing roll followed by the airspeed indicator needle jumping announced that he had exceeded the speed of sound. Except that this time, he was going even faster, having started his dive 2,000 feet higher. Unlike the dive 13 days earlier, Welch did not pull off power when he passed 25,000 feet. Instead, he executed a full power, 4g pullout. Welch did not realize it at the time, but this maneuver was to greatly increase the force of his sonic boom as it slammed into the earth.
Easing off power, Welch scanned the sky looking for Chilton’s P-82. He spotted what he at first thought was Chilton. Then he realized that the plane had more than two engines. It was a B-29, a mothership, lumbering to altitude with the XS-1 in its belly. Slightly behind, on either side were the P-80s of chase pilots Hoover and Frost. It dawned on him that his shock wave might have hit the big bomber. If it had, there was no doubt that everyone aboard would have gotten the message, loud and clear. Finding Chilton, Welch headed back to the base. The landing gear came down as advertised and George greased it in like the pro he was. A few minutes later, after shutting down and climbing out, Welch heard a distant ba-boom. A check of his watch indicated 10:30 AM. Attaining a speed of Mach 1.06, Yeager had finally done it.
That night there would be no celebrating at Pancho’s. The Air Force had clamped a secrecy lid on Yeager’s flight. The party was held at several of the pilot’s houses. A drunken Yeager managed to crash his motorcycle in a knucklehead display of derring-do. Of course, Pancho’s was open for business, and the North American gang had gathered for a few drinks. Pancho was walking on air, her darling boy having blasted the Fly Inn with a boom that broke some large windows on the east side of the building. Major General Joseph Swing (an old friend from the war) was on hand and asked Welch about the two separate booms. The first was extremely loud, the second, 15 minutes later, was far more subdued. Welch suggested that it came from a V-2 rocket out of White Sands. General Swing knew otherwise. Swing had earned a tremendous reputation for his leading an airborne operation that freed over 2,000 American POWs from a Japanese camp on Luzon. Swing’s reputation and his close friendship with General Eisenhower would come into play later.
Between October 14 and November 4, Welch had taken the Sabre up 19 times, with eight of those being labeled as “high Mach dives”. The constant hammering of sonic booms finally convinced the Air Force and NACA to employ the same measuring equipment used for the XS-1, to determine the actual speed of the Sabre. On November 13, Welch was “officially” clocked at Mach 1.02 and later that same day, Mach 1.04 was attained. On both flights, the airspeed needle had jumped just as before. Between October 1 and February 28, Welch made at least 68 flights, of which, 23 were supersonic. During the same time period, the XS-1 made seven flights, with but only three were supersonic. Indeed, the vast majority of booms heard in the desert over those months belonged to Welch and the XP-86. More importantly, I believe, the Sabre was a real combat aircraft. It had guns. It could deliver bombs and rockets. It could takeoff and land under its own power. No wonder Bell was worried.
Despite the tight security surrounding the XS-1 program, the story of Yeager’s flight was leaked to a reporter from Aviation Week magazine. In an issue dated December 22, 1947, an article appeared with the glaring headline: “Bell XS-1 Makes Supersonic Flight”. The magazine was released on December 20th. The cat was certainly out of the bag.
Dutch Kindelburger was the founder of North American Aviation, and was still president of the company. He happened to be visiting the Pentagon just three days before Christmas when he was informed that Stuart Symington wanted to see him, right now! Upon arriving at the Secretary’s office, everyone else was asked to leave and the door was closed. Dutch was handed a copy of Aviation Week, opened to the XS-1 article. Dutch shrugged, this was old news to anyone who had been at Muroc. Symington went on to explain that General Joe Swing had seen the article and claimed that Welch had beat Yeager, not once, but twice. Kindelburger explained the odd behavior of the airspeed indicator, and informed the Secretary that testing in November had confirmed the airspeed indicator’s behavior and the fact that the XP-86 had broken the sound barrier. Symington was dumbfounded. He was in terrible bind. The President had promised Larry Bell that the XS-1 would be the first to go supersonic. Not only that, but the fact that the XP-86 “officially” broke the barrier just days after the rocket plane created another problem. Why spend so much money on the XS-1, when its technology wasn’t even needed?
A solution was worked out that included North American sitting on the story until the Air Force felt it was safe to issue a press release. This would allow Symington to get the maximum mileage out of the XS-1 and Yeager. Then, when it was politically safe, the world would be informed of the Sabre punching through the mythical barrier. True to his word, Kindelburger kept the story under wraps. In June of 1948, a press release announced that the XP-86, piloted by George Welch had broken the sound barrier on April 26th.
Since the press release of 1948, the story of the XP-86 and George Welch has remained little more than rumor and legend. In the early 1990s, a former North American test pilot began the research for a book that would finally tell the truth about who was the first man to fly faster than sound. Al (Blackie) Blackburn labored for several years, gathering evidence and interviews. Finally, in 1998, his book was released. It had an immediate impact within the aviation community. The Smithsonian’s Air and Space magazine published a condensation of the book. The Air Force has denied that Welch was first. However, even the U.S. Air Force cannot totally ignore the existing wealth of evidence, the weight of which, is more than compelling. The official web site of the Air Force Museum has ammended its language and added the words; "IN LEVEL FLIGHT" to their story of the famed supersonic flight made by Yeager in the XS-1 on October 14, 1947. Fifty one years of history will have to be rewritten to incorporate Welch and his accomplishment. Like any massive organization, the military is terribly slow to accept change. This is exacerbated by the realization that the Air Force’s greatest hero since World War Two will have to, at the minimum, share his place on the pedestal of fame. If anyone should have any doubts, the evidence, if properly considered, is conclusive. Let’s view this in terms of presenting the evidence as if in a criminal trial. Would the evidence result in a conviction?
You be the judge.
Motive: Welch clearly demonstrated a desire to push the Sabre through Mach 1. His discussions with the design engineers at North American and with his friends and family are proof positive of this.
Opportunity: Welch had two opportunities to dive the XP-86 prior to Yeager’s record flight.
Weapon: There can be no doubt that the XP-86 could exceed Mach 1 in a dive. This was officially established on November 13, 1947. There were no changes made to the aircraft that could improve performance between October 1 and November 13. So, there is no doubt that the XP-86 was capable of supersonic flight from day one.
Witnesses: There were hundreds, if not thousands of people who felt and heard the two sonic booms of October 1 and 14. Several have since testified to hearing the booms. In addition, we have the testimony of those who spoke with Welch where he admitted to making unauthorized supersonic dives.
Additional evidence: Welch’s flight logbook contains entries for all supersonic flights, including those not authorized. "Mach Jump": Welch was the first to report this phenomenon. No one had observed "Mach Jump" prior to the flight. Yet, today it is considered as decisive evidence of supersonic flight.
Summation: Welch announced his intention to dive the XP-86 through the sound barrier. Welch had at least two opportunities to do so. Welch was flying an airplane that was easily capable of exceeding Mach 1 in a dive. Welch told several credible people that he had flown through the sonic barrier. There were hundreds of witnesses, including one General and other high ranking military and civilian personnel who heard and felt the sonic booms. Welch witnesses a phenomenon that only someone who had exceeded Mach 1 would see. He reported it before any other pilot. Therefore, he could not invent it. Welch's logbook lists the two flights as high Mach (the same terms used for the official speed runs).
The Verdict: Guilty as hell.
Having taken the prototype YF-100 Super Sabre (there was no XF-100) supersonic on its first flight on May 25, 1953, Welch reinforced all claims to his being the first man through the sound barrier. This was typical Welch behavior. Unfortunately, George cannot testify for himself. On Columbus Day of 1954, Welch was performing a demonstration flying the new F-100A. His flight card called for a symmetrical pull-up at 1.55 Mach. The maneuver would generate more than 7 Gs. As he began the maneuver, the airflow over the wing suddenly burbled, completely blanking the newly redesigned and smaller vertical stabilizer. The fighter yawed slightly and then suddenly turned partially sideways to the direction of travel. The nose folded up at the windscreen and crushed Welch in his ejection seat. Miraculously, the seat fired and carried Welch clear of the plane as it disintegrated. Ejecting at supersonic speeds is not only hard on the human body, it’s hard on parachutes as well. Welch’s chute was nearly shredded by the violent blast of air. With many panels blown out, the rate of descent was much too fast to avoid serious injury, or even death. When rescuers arrived at Welch’s side, he was barely alive. He died before he could be transported to a hospital. Ironically, Yeager had complained that the F-100A, with its smaller vertical stabilizer, was dangerously unstable. Welch elected to fly it anyway.
In a span of just under 14 years, George Welch had established himself as one of America’s greatest aviators. His remarkable accomplishments in World War Two would be enough to cause people to remember him in both books and films. Adding in his postwar adventures only serves to place him far above all but a handful of American aviation figures. So, why is it that Welch is virtually unknown outside of the aviation community today? Not only was he the first man to break the sound barrier, he was also the first to do so in an air-breathing aircraft in level flight (YF-100).
Perhaps, the next time you look up at a passing jet, or watch a modern fighter roar across the sky, just maybe, you will remember George Welch and his contributions to America and aviation.
If after having read the evidence presented here, you believe that George Welch and Kenneth Taylor have not received the recognition that they are due, there is something that you can do.
With regard to Welch and Taylor being denied a Medal of Honor, take some time and call, write or E-mail your Senators and Congressional representative. Ask them to investigate this travesty.
If you believe that Welch was, or may have been the first man to break the sound barrier, please take a few minutes and write to the historian of the United States Air Force, Dr. Richard Hallion, and ask him to conduct an objective investigation into the issue. To date, Dr. Hallion has limited his efforts to defending the XS-1, in accordance with USAF policy. No one from the historian's office has contacted surviving members of the North American engineering team. Nor to my knowledge, have they had any contact with the Welch family, who have George's logbook and personal records.