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Louis Rotundo Presents The X-1 Story at Orlando Remembered, March 2024

Well, thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here. I don’t get to talk about this book much anymore. The book obviously has been around for quite some time. The story never gets old in my opinion, but I don’t get to do it very often. The book itself was a fortuitous thing. I had seen the movie and read the book The Right Stuff, and from the library I had taken out another book called, The X-Planes. And in reading it, it said, you know, “The first ten flights of the X-1 were in a place called Pinecastle Army Airfield, but nobody knows much about those flights. But now, the sound barrier flights out in Muroc, whoa, that’s a great story.And I thought isn’t that funny, Pinecastle Army Airfield, I wonder where that is. And I kept reading and realized they’re talking about this Pinecastle and this Army Airfield in Orlandoexcerpt from Louis Rotundo presenting an oral history on the X-1 Story at the Orlando Remembered meeting March 20, 2024 at the Orlando Public Library.

Louis Rotundo is the Principal of Rotundo and Associates, a lobbying and consulting firm located in Central Florida. Rotundo has worked as a lobbyist for the state of Florida in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida with a master’s in public policy politics of policy making. He has served as Staff Assistant to Senator Lawton Chiles, Deputy Director of the Florida Ocean Thermal Energy Consortium, Special Assistant to Director of the Florida Energy Center, Special Assistant to the President of the University of Central Florida. Mr. Rotundo’s many clients in Central Florida and the United States include work for Darden Restaurants, the University of Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, the Pacific International Center for High Technology Research, Central Florida Commuter Rail Authority (now LYNX), Alachua County, the City of Altamonte Springs, the City of Maitland, the City of Ocoee, the City of Deltona, the City of Treasure Island, Florida Institute of Technology, Falcone Development, the United States Tennis Association, the Florida Grapefruit League, and Orlando Sanford International and more.  Louis Rotundo is a military historian and is the author of the books: Battle for Stalingrad: The Soviet General Staff Analysis of the Battle on the Volga, Forgotten Dawn: The X-1 at Pinecastle, Into the Unknown: The X-1 Story,  and many other articles and publications. 


“Did you know you had the X-1 here?”

So I called the executive director of GOAA back then and I said, “Did you know you had the X-1 here?” He said, “You’re hired. Go do the research.” So that was the genesis of the book. And then when I continued the conversations with the Smithsonian, they said, “No, no do all fifty flights.” So I already had the original. But, fortunately in doing that, I had the opportunity to interview just about everybody who’s still alive. I caught them unfortunately at the end of their life, in many cases when they were in their seventies or eighties, but I did have that opportunity.

Classified Records on the X-1

I also had the opportunity to collect most of the classified records that were available on the X-1: both the NACA, and the Bell Aircraft records, and the Army Air Corps – Force now. So between those three, that’s what the book is. It’s a very detailed analysis. I would say, as generally speaking I like to tell people, it’s a reading book in some parts; it’s a reference book in some parts, the kind you pull off the shelf and say, when did that happen? Oh, yeah, that was on flight 47. And then in some parts, it’s just preservation. Because a lot of the people when I was interviewing them said the same words in the interview: “You’re the first person who ever asked us about this.” And yet, some of them had been involved in almost all of the program….

Why the X-1?

And so anyway, with that note, we’ve only got 3 hours. No, I’m kidding. I’m kidding.  How many of y’all have seen The Right Stuff, the movie and how many have read the book, which of course was a New York Times bestseller for 10 or 12 years? [Are you talking about your book or their book?] The Right Stuff. [I read your book and won’t mess with the other stuff.] And I like to tell people, well, that was the right stuff, this is the real stuff because the book is a reading book and the movie is, heroics. It’s not true. It’s just not exactly true. And so, today, I’m just going to focus on three things: Why the X-1? Why Pinecastle? Why does any of this matter?  (And by the way, if you get the burning desire to spend a couple of hours, all my notes, all the interviews, all the classified records, and about 200 photographs are out at UCF in a special collection under my name, because I didn’t have any room for them at the time. And so, we transferred them out there.)

World War II and Aviation

The genesis of all of this starts with a new and known event. You may have heard about it. It was in aII the papers, it’s called WWII. And it was, and it’s on TV every day now, if you want to watch. Between 1939 and 1945, aviation didn’t go forward, it leaped forward. If you think about it, in ‘39, we had Pipers in military service still and if you did 300 miles an hour, that was phenomenal. By the end of the war, you had jets and you had routine planes, propeller-driven planes doing 430 miles an hour, phenomenal advances in aviation technology. 

American Air Power

America, of course, won the war, and we did it with air power. If you don’t believe me, ask the Air Force. They’ll tell you all day long how they won the war. The problem with that story is there was an uncomfortable little addendum. And that was that Germany had better planes and they had rockets and they were all in service. Whereas America’s jet showed up in ‘45 at the end of the war. The British jet Gloster Meteor, same thing.  So, it raised a fundamental question with a lot of the – especially the Air Force people and some congressmen: How the heck did the Germans get so far ahead of us?  And, it wasn’t done in public. But a lot of fingers were pointed at the National Advisory Council Committee for Aeronautics, the NACA, the predecessor of NASA, that was the agency charged with doing the research in aviation for America.

John Stack at NACA and Ezra Kotcher at Wright Field Air Material Command

And the fact that they were behind the curve and we were behind the curve kind of made the Air Force, especially the top brass, say, never again. We are going to take charge of this.  And before I go any further, let me just say this, although when you read the book you might say, boy, were these people petty. Boy were they misguided. But these were all brilliant, brilliant people.  And as want with brilliant people, sometimes their feet are firmly planted right where they are. And this was all unknown.  Nobody knew how to build an airplane that would go faster than the speed of sound. But two individuals stand out. One is John Stack at the NACA and the other is Ezra Kotcher at the Air Material Command, the AMC at Wright Field. Those two sort of led the charge to find a way to find a supersonic airplane.  

The Sound Barrier

The NACA said, “Let’s build a jet powered plane.  It’s more reliable. We know how the characteristics are for that and let’s do that.” The AMC Ezra Kotcher said, “No, no, you have to build a rocket, a rocket powered plane only that will give you the thrust to reach and exceed Mach 1, the sound barrier. ” And the problem was the sound barrier.  Before the war, the British, one of the British scientists was showing a graph to some newspaper people. And he said, “You see how when the wing of the airplane moves through the air on the diagram, the air tends to rise up almost like a barrier and it pulls the plane back?” By the next morning every paper in Britain had the story there’s a sound barrier out in the sky, a solid wall impenetrable and it may not be, it may not be breachable.  


Well, you know, what they were really talking about was the phenomena called compressibility, where as you go through that, the air, not to bore you, but the air tends to separate around the wing, around the tail. And before you know it, you’re moving the stick this way and that, the plane’s not doing anything. You lose lift and you have this buffeting that occurs. And as I like to tell people, a lot of pilots found that out the hard way. Straight down in the dive, and they yank back on the stick to pull out, the plane doesn’t do anything because of the loss of lift in your ailerons. You had no control and you dug a hole in the ground, basically.

Swept Wings

The Germans, even before the war, had said, “Swept wings will fix this problem.” Nobody seemed to remember that conversation.  So, the question was how do you design an airplane that might fly faster than the speed of sound? Well, you do it in a wind tunnel, you hang a model in a wind tunnel, you blow air over it and you see, you know, the colored smoke as it goes back. The only problem is wind tunnels in 1945 between about Mach 7 of .7 and Mach 1.3, the air would go over the model, hit the walls and rebound back and it would mess up the air flow over the model. And so, you didn’t know, you know, your readings were all false.

Two Responses

And nowadays, we just design airplanes with computers, save a lot of time. Back then, okay, if I don’t have a computer in 1945, ‘44 and I can’t do wind tunnel testing, what’s my choice? I build a plane and I fly it. And I use my best guess as to how it works.  So, the question became, who would do that? NACA, by its charter, couldn’t do planes. They just tested them. And the Army Air Force, they didn’t build planes. Private contractors built planes and tried to sell them to the government. And during the war, they sold a lot of planes to the government. But the war in ’44, ‘45 is winding down, and those contracts are starting to get a little scarcer.  They put out the contract in December of ‘44.  Two responses, from all of aviation. Two responses from all the companies in America.

50-Caliber Bullet Plane Design

One from McDonnell, one from Bell. And the McDonnell proposal, they had a special meeting to discuss that. Which one? The McDonnell proposal wasn’t well received because they plan to test in a dive. Diving to the ground, trying to go supersonic is not conducive to safety. And plus, they wanted to use a mothership to take the plane aloft and then drop it and that has all kinds of complications. The Bell proposal was for level flight. It was a lot better proposal. So, they got the contract. But since they didn’t know what they were building, they took some parameters. One, the plane was designed like a 50-caliber bullet. Why? I know the 50-caliber bullet goes supersonic. I can hear it. I can see it on a test. So, the plane was designed like a 50-caliber bullet. 

“Fuselage was stressed to an 18G Max…”

This fuselage was stressed to an 18G Max, 18 times the force of gravity, figuring that’s way more safety than we’ll ever need going through the sound barrier. The special wing and tail was a machine aluminum wing. Very, very thin. Ten percent mean aerodynamic chord.  In World War II, most planes had 18, 15. Even the Mustang which flew with a thin wing was I think 12. So, this was going to be even thinner than that, thinner wing go through the sound wall easier.

Higher Horizontal Stabilizer and a Special Actuation Switch

But it had one feature that nobody really grasped at the time. They weren’t doing it for any other reason than safety. On the plane, the wing is right here on the fuselage. But on the tail, on the horizontal tail, they put the stabilizer up higher. Generally, in most airplanes they’ve been the same. Well, if they’re the same and you’re going through the sound transonic zone, compressibility hits both of them at the same time. By putting it higher up on the tail and machining it even narrower, eight percent, they were hoping that they could fend off the effects of compressibility on the whole aircraft and you’d still have some control. But there was one other trick that nobody discussed because it was classified. The horizontal stabilizer on the rear of the airplane could be tilted up or down from inside the cockpit with a special actuation switch. So, I could change the angle of attack when hitting the air.

Contract with Bell Aircraft

And to make a long story short, Bell got the contract. In March, they were given a three plane contract and they started work.  The NACA wasn’t happy with any of this. They didn’t like the Bell proposal. They didn’t like any of the details that the Army Air Corps had decided to settle on. So they went to the Navy, said, “Build us a transonic plane called the D-558. Take off from the ground, land back on the ground. None of this airdrop stuff, ten percent wing, same thing.”   As Bell proceeded, they were able to use most of the German research because by then the war ended in ‘45 over the summer. So, they were able to look at the Me 163 rocket plane that the Germans had built and they had designed it. In the meantime, they commissioned Reaction Motors to build an engine for the plane and a turbine pump, which would force the fuel in. Well, the turbine pump didn’t work. And we get June, July, August, and now we’re starting to run out of time. We got to get this thing in the air, so the turbine pump was transferred to General Electric and they couldn’t make it work either.

First Research Airplane Built by America

So, Bell made the decision to put in pressurized tanks in the plane of liquid nitrogen to force the liquid oxygen and alcohol into the engine. Well, the tanks and the extra weight of the fuel, and all of a sudden, the ten percent flight time is now two and a half minutes of flight time. That’s all the fuel you can carry in this airplane. Well, two and a half minutes isn’t long enough to get up off the ground into the air up to 35,000. So, you’ve got to use a B-29 to drop the plane.  And in December, Bell Aircraft rolled the plane out, painted it bright orange, rather unusual color, helps to see it. Because this is the first research airplane that America had ever built purely for research, there’s no production contract. This is strictly a research plane.

Bell’s Chief Test Pilot: Jack Woolams

So, having got the plane and settled the question of who’s going to fly it? Bell’s chief test pilot, Jack Woolams, a man with the real right stuff; a guy who predated Yeager, whose accomplishments were legendary even at that time. He held the altitude record. First man to fly coast to coast nonstop. First Test pilot in the XP-59. Bob Stanley flew the first flight. Jack did all the other tests, and he had a long record. Air Force loved him. They said, “You fly the plane.” So we got a pilot. We got a plane. Where are we going to test this thing? Bell said, “Let’s test it at Niagara. It’s right by the Bell factory.” NACA said, “No, no, let’s test it at Langley. It’s all my people doing all the technical work on the plane, instrumenting it, getting all the technical data.” The Army Air Corps didn’t want anything to do with NACA.

The Need for a Long Runaway

So, they said, “Well, Bell, if you think, but the problem is we need to get this thing in the air.” I don’t know, has anybody been to Buffalo in January?  I’ve been there in October and there was three feet of snow on the ground. So, Bell said, “Let’s test it at Muroc Army Air Base out in the high desert California. It’s dry. It’s wonderful. The lakebed, you can roll out forever as fast as you’re flying.” You can do this. Problem is, in January, February, the dry lakebed is not dry. It is full of water and then it dries, and it compounds the hardness of the surface of the lake, which makes it perfect for test flying in March, April, May, June, July. But the plane’s ready in December, so we can’t go to Muroc. And by the way, Muroc is a long way away from Bell Aircraft in New York and the NACA in Virginia. So, they start looking around. Jack Woolams flies all over looking at airfields. We need one wide. We need one long. The longer the better, because no one’s sure how this plane’s going to land and roll out. 

Daytona Beach and Orlando

Eventually they got down to about two places.  There was a third, Cherry Point, NC, but the weather’s bad in North Carolina in January also, and it was a radial airfield. It was hooked. And so looked at two places, both in Florida, coincidentally, Daytona Beach and Orlando. And when I say Daytona Beach, I mean Daytona Beach. They’re talking about landing on the beach. Why? It’s sand just like at Muroc. The problem with it is that ocean thing right beside you. Any miscalculation and there goes our most expensive contract the Army Air Force had to date for a non-production aircraft. This was a two and a half million-dollar contract for three planes in 1945. Very expensive. Nobody wanted to take a chance on the plane going into the ocean. And oh, by the way, how do you stop tourists and everybody else from standing around watching this thing land? This is a classified program. So, then they looked at Pinecastle. And two things right off the bat:  It’s got a 10,000-foot runway, supposedly the longest in America and it’s remote. There is nothing around it, but trees, marshes, and lakes. And they thought it’s an Army Air Base, we got security, let’s do it.

Brilliant People

So, they go to Pinecastle for this. As most of you may know, the base was completed in ’42 and B-17’s used to take off and practice taking off under load. That’s why the long runway. So, by January of ’46 it was scheduled for early deactivation, but they could use it for this purpose. So, they would do that.  NACA sent down a team on I think it was January 14th. This is what I call coordination between government agencies. Bell brought the airplane down on January 18th.   And the rest of the NACA team showed up on January 19th.  And so, you have this accumulation of very brilliant people. Walt Williams, who later became the head of the Mercury astronauts, was in charge of the NACA team. Jerry Trasinski, who did the radar tracking, became the head of NASA space tracking around the world. Jack was 29 years old, test pilot. Around him was a team of people who had done the XP-59.

Air Force Liaison Captain David Pearsall

Most of these people were in their twenties, handling the most expensive contract that the government left with no supervision. The only supervision was an Army Air Force Liaison, Captain David Pearsall, who came down from Wright Field. And I interviewed David, and he told me, “I wasn’t in charge of nothing. I was there just as an observer. Bell was in charge of everything.”  Bell would tell you that. And the NACA would tell you, “No, they were in charge of everything.” So it was, that was part of the friction. Nobody had ever done this. Nobody was sure how you did it. And so, there was a lot of give and take, shall we say, conversation between who would do what and how and how long we’d wait and whatever, whatever.  

Orlando Lodging

And one last incident, so January 19th, when the NACA team flies down, that’s a Friday. So, they settle in.The Bell team is staying at the Angebilt Hotel. We all know where that is… They all go out because it was the weekend, all of the Bell guys who had money because they were private contractors, they would go to the Orange Court Motor Lodge. And as they told me, they’re twenty-something years old and there were women there. That’s why they were all there on Friday and Saturday night. Well, the NACA guys, they all stayed, because they were government employees, they stayed at Orlando Army Air Force Base or Air Base, which we know as Herndon, and the Naval Training Center. And that’s where they stayed in the primitive conditions of barracks because that’s what they were.   But as they said, food was fantastic, and the service was great because it was full of German prisoners still waiting to be repatriated home. So, they had a lot of help while they were there.


So the NACA team goes to see the Bell team the next morning on Saturday. They get there and the chief of the project, Bob Stanley and Jack Woolams and two or three of the other Bell, they’re all fishing. It’s Florida. And oh, by the way, they’re private contractors. They don’t work on the weekends without overtime, and nobody had authorized overtime. So, they ain’t there and they had to wait till Sunday night to catch everybody. And that kind of set the framework for this whole program.

January 25, 1946, Pinecastle

There were ten flights in Pinecastle and I won’t hit you with all of them. They were all glide flights because the rocket engine wasn’t ready. On the first flight, which was January 25th, now remember, the plane’s been here since the 18th, January 25th. Why would that be? We weren’t ready. The bomber wasn’t ready. The weather was bad. Anyway, we finally hit the first flight on the 25th. So, they get up and they go to the airfield and it’s a brisk 60 degrees.  It’s January, even in Florida it gets cold. Now compare that to where they came from Buffalo, where it’s snowing and blizzarding. This is, this is fantastic. I’ve got film of the guys out suntanning while they’re waiting for the plane to be loaded and taken aloft or brought back because this is fantastic.


Jack was wearing his flight jacket, his coveralls, a Mae West and a parachute. Let me tell you about that parachute. I have not figured out why anybody was wearing a parachute in the X-1. After all, the plane was prone to have malfunctions, to catch fire and whatever, but you couldn’t bail out of it. You want to talk about the real right stuff. That’s the real right stuff. The door for the plane is right there. The wing is right there. Before you could roll out of the door, because you’d have to kind of go out sideways, you’d hit the wing at any speed. So, you weren’t going anywhere. You weren’t bailing out. So, I have no idea what the parachute was for.

Mae West

The Mae West, what did I tell you about Pinecastle surrounded by marshes and lakes?  You never know, wearing Mae West. So, they climb, they strap the X-1 in a pit they dug at the south end of the long runway.   They go down to the runway, they take off. They’re climbing the altitude, as they’re climbing the altitude, Jack gets out of the interior of the bottom on a little catwalk, which is the Bombay where the X-1 is strapped in, and he’s walking along the catwalk over to a sliding elevator that takes him down to the – now you can look down at the ground, because there are no Bombay doors or anything. And you’re climbing, and it’s 10,000 feet. It’s cold and the oxygen’s a little short. So, he climbs in, starts buttoning it up. He has to have help to get the door in place and they lock it down.

First Test Flight

And the first thing he notices is the heat coming in from the B-29 ain’t coming in. So, he radios up and says it’s a little cold in this thing as they’re climbing to 25,000 feet. And eventually Jack says, “Enough of this. Drop this plane, I’m freezing down here.” So, they drop it. He goes through ringing out as you do with any test plane on its first flight, this, that, this, that. It’s coming in for a landing because it only lasts about, I mean, nine minutes was the whole flight time. Because it’s a glide, he has no power. So, he’s coming in north going south along the main runway at Pinecastle, and he’s going to hook around and do a landing and he’s going through all kinds of check procedures. And as he’s halfway through his turn hook around, he realizes he’s bleeding off speed way faster than anticipated. This is the first flight of a brand new airplane nobody knew.

“A Roaring Success!”

He also realizes he’s not going to make the runway. So, he flattens out in this turn and comes in for a landing across the runway, barely clears the pine trees at the end of the runway. And most of the observers said, “We didn’t think you were going to make it.” Good to have a skillful test pilot. Even in a brand-new plane, he knew how to nurse it up and over the trees and then down hits the ground. If you watch the film, you can see the film, the first landing. There’s a little puff of smoke where it hits on the surface beside the runway, crosses the runway and then a big puff of smoke when it goes rolling out into the grass between the taxiway. And that was the first flight, a roaring success.

Rodeo at Orlando Fairgrounds

Later that night all the boys got together, the Bell boys and said, “What do we do?” It’s freezing cold. It’s like 28 degrees that night. And Jack comes up with a great idea. Let’s go to the rodeo. So, they go to the Orlando Fairgrounds to a rodeo. And they’re all up in the stands and they’re fortifying themselves with a little liquid heat. And Jack excuses himself. And they’re all, yeah, okay, we’ll have another drink and we’re all sitting there. And all of a sudden five or ten minutes goes by and one of them goes, “Where the heck is Jack?” And about that time the announcer says, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a special rider on the event.” And out of the chute comes Jack Woolams riding this Brahma bull.  

A Calculated Risk

As the newspaper reported the next day, it was a short ride. Jack got thrown. It’s all in fun. Nobody cared. Came back and Bell’s Bob Stanley, who was a no-nonsense guy, had to remind his test pilot this is an expensive program and you could have gotten injured. Don’t do that. Everybody told me that story. And I’ll tell you what they didn’t know. Mrs. Woolams told me Jack was an experienced test pilot, very wealthy family, grew up on a ranch and used to break wild horses on his daddy’s ranch.  If I say nothing more and you take nothing else away from him, think about that. That’s a test pilot. It’s a risk, but it’s a calculated risk. That’s how they view all the aircraft problems. And a bull ride, no different than riding a wild horse. It’s a risk, but it’s a calculated risk. I know what I’m doing.

Fourth Flight

On the fourth flight, Jack came in for a landing, rolling down the runway and the wings tended to drop, droop. He hit one of the boundary lights and skidded off the runway and had to repair the wing. During that time, everybody raced out to make sure Jack was okay because the nose wheel collapsed at the end of the runway on top of that. And so, they’re racing down the runway. And one of the guys I interviewed said, “Yeah, that Bob Stanley jumped in my car and drove off and left me standing at the control tower. So, I jumped on his motorcycle and I followed him.

Pressure Suit

When we get there, they’re discussing what happened, why it happened, and there’s a very famous photograph of that. And by the way, we all know photographs don’t lie.  Photographs never lie. It’s right there on the photograph. There’s Jack Woolams in his pressure suit, standing there beside the plane.  Except Jack didn’t wear a pressure suit in any of the flights. But there’s the photograph. He’s standing there wearing a pressure suit, and it’s been written up in other books. Jack Woolams wearing the pressure suit on his fourth flight.  How do photographs not lie when I’m looking at that? And then I look at several photographs I have of Jack wearing his flight jacket and coveralls.

The Photograph

I asked participants, “Anybody know anything about this? How this happened?” One of them finally tells me, “Oh yeah, I remember.” He said, “One of the group that was with us at Bell was the company that was manufacturing the pressure suit. They were there just as observers, but they brought down a copy of the pressure suit with them for fitting.” And by the way, it was a bra and girdle company that made the first pressure suit for the U.S. government. They knew something about compressibility obviously.  So, they’re standing there and Bob Stanley goes, sees them, and he goes, “Hey, you guys got that pressure suit with you?” “Yeah.” “Well, Jack, slip this thing on right now.” And he slips it on standing there between the runway and the taxiway. He’s slipping it on. And that’s why in the photograph it looks like he’s got his hand here. He’s zipping it closed. That’s what he’s doing.  But I told you, photographs never lie. But it just did.  

Fifth Flight

On the fifth flight, the nose wheel collapsed again. The plane skidded down the runway on its nose wheel door. Another delay. That was on February 19th. January 25th – February 19th they get five flights in. Why?  It’s rainy, it’s cloudy, it’s low clouds, but no rain. Nobody mentioned that when they said, “Let’s go to Pinecastle.”  We live here, is there a day that’s not cloudy in Florida? So anyway, they finally got in all the flights. March 5th, they have the last flight, and they call back to Bell and say we’re going to do a couple more flights and we’re done. And Bell says, “No, you’re not. We have an important reason for you to be here. The deputy commander of the Air Material Command is coming to Bell and we want to kind of show off a little bit. Bring that plane back to Bell Aircraft.” So that concluded the Pinecastle piece of the flights. They let it up. They were gone within three days, all of them. And that was our piece of history.

“We proved the plane could fly…”

What did we prove? Well, we proved that the plane could fly. It could separate from the drop aircraft without yawing back up into it. That the plane had wonderful flight characteristics. Jack Woolams raved about the plane to everybody. Love this plane. It’s fantastic. Handles like a dream. And the NACA got their base data on the plane. Because the plane was just one flying instrument package, which didn’t work half the time, but they got it.  They also found out one other important thing. We need a lot more space. We need a lot more space. The plane went off the runway more than once. We need a lot more space. So that means Niagara and Bell, Langley and NACA can’t possibly fly the next phase there. We’re going back to Muroc.  

Pioneered at Pinecastle: Radar Tracking, Chase Plane Follow, Testing, Instrumentation…”

When I asked Walt Williams, the head of the NACA team, I said, “These were just ten glide flights. Big deal.” He corrected me, “No, no you don’t understand. This is the first time we’d ever, any of us had done this. Everything we pioneered at that location: Radar Tracking, Chase Plane Follow, Testing, Instrumentation, all of that, all of that became the basis of all the tests at Muroc and how we did the Mercury program.   Same techniques, same procedures, same interface.  That’s our piece of history.”

In the end, the plane wasn’t what everybody expected. We’re not going to use a drop plane.  We ended up using a drop plane. We’re going to fly at level and break the sound barrier. They ended up doing it in a climb because the rocket engine was more powerful than they expected. And the higher you go, the lower the bottom number gets, the speed number gets to get to Mach 1. So, and last but not least, the short flight time, they were all two and a half minutes. They never fired all four rocket engines at once, but when they did they broke the sound barrier. They could have done that at any time.

Aviation Dominance Because of the Flying Tail

So in the end it was a program that fulfilled all of its needs, led us to aviation dominance. Not because we broke the sound barrier but because of the flying tail. Because when Yeager went through the sound barrier, the tail had been placed one degree down. And it was supposed to be that he would move it while he was going through the sound barrier. He went through the sound barrier with just a little speed bump. That was it. And the pilot report is legendary now where Yeager not wanting to say aloud over the air that I just broke the sound barrier, he just said to Jack Ridley, “Hey Ridley, something screwy going on, this old Mach meter is acting funny.” And Ridley responded, “Well, if it’s broke we’ll fix it. Personally, I think you’re seeing things.” That was the aviation code they used to say, “I just broke Mach One.” End of story.

“Pinecastle History Piece about this Plane that hangs in the Smithsonian…”

That’s the Pinecastle piece of history about this plane that hangs in the Smithsonian. And as many of you know, the original pilot was the pilot who was supposed to break the sound barrier. Because I am firmly of the opinion that as much as Jack Woolams was well beloved by the Army, they would have never taken the plane from him. And so, it would have been Bell that would have done it. But Jack was killed in September ’46, just before the start of the acceptance flights at the Cleveland National Air Races and lost his place in this history. But those first ten flights in the interview he gave, form, I think, the architecture of the book and the conclusion and the title. It was Jack’s words that I look at this as a leap into the unknown. Thank you.

Excerpt from the book Into the Unknown: The X-1 Story by Louis Rotundo, published by Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

page 8.

Some of those discussions on high speed aircraft were already occurring within the offices of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and the Army Air Corps Engineering School at Wright Field, Ohio. During the mid-1930s, conversations on transonic and supersonic problems led two engineers, NACA’s John Stack (head of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory [LMAL] Compressibility Division) and Wright Field’s Ezra Kotcher (then a civilian, later to retire as a lieutenant colonel), to conclude that breaching the sound barrier was not a problem of penetrating a “wall”, but rather a problem of developing a set of solutions to a series of aerodynamic and powerplant questions. Data, not ability, was the factor missing from the efforts to understand the so-called sound barrier. With better understanding, it would be possible to develop technology to allow an airplane to fly faster than sound.

Stack had been investigating the effects of compressibility on high speed flight since 1927. In 1933-34, he produced a conceptual model of an experimental airplane for compressibility research. Although the aircraft was never built, the proposal did generate significant discussion on the possibility of flying at speeds greater than 500 MPH. It stressed the need for further understanding of the aerodynamic effects on aircraft operating in the region just below supersonic speeds. In 1942, Stack recommended to NACA headquarters HQ in Washington, D.C. that the agency pursue development of a transonic research airplane. NACA HQ did not enthusiastically embrace the new idea, but the initial discussions led to the formation of a research team headed by Stack to develop the design requirements for such a new aircraft.

At the same time that Stack was developing his ideas, Kotcher was working at Wright Field. In 1939, Kotcher submitted a report to the prestigious Kilner-Lindbergh Board on the future of aeronautical research. In the document, Kotcher advocated a “comprehensive flight research program” to allow comparisons between wind tunnel data and actual flight performance data. Kotcher also advocated the use of gas turbine or rocket propulsion systems to allow greater performance in the new aircraft than that achievable with propeller technology. At that time neither technology was seriously being considered for high speed flight. The board provided the report to the Army Air Corps (Army Air Forces as of June 20, 1941) chief of staff.

Orlando Memory Historical Notes:

On January 25, 1946 Bell Aircraft manufacturer, based in Buffalo, NY, air-released the Bell X-1 aircraft, the first U.S. research plane for transonic flight, for Mach 1 at Pinecastle Army Airfield in Orlando.

On March 9, 2024 Stratolaunch aerospace manufacturer, based in Mojave, CA, air-released the TA-1 aircraft for hypersonic, Mach 5 flight. The TA-1 with the Hadley engine fired for about 200 seconds in flight. According to Tech Briefs, the flight is “a major milestone in creating the first privately funded reusable hypersonic test platform in the United States.”

Oral History Presenter:  Louis Rotundo

Oral History Presentation Recorded by:  Jane Tracy

Date:  March 20, 2024

Place: Orlando Public Library

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Into the Unknown: the X-1 Story

Into the Unknown: the X-1 Story by Louis Rotundo.

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Louis R. Rotundo Presents The X-1 Story at Orlando Remembered, March 2024

Louis R. Rotundo Presents The X-1 Story at Orlando Remembered, March 20, 2024. (37:43)

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