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AREA'S ROLE IN BREAKING SOUND BARRIER REMEMBERED

Fifty years ago this week, humanity broke through the speed of sound.

On Oct. 14, 1947, a Buffalo-built plane called the X-1 dropped from the belly of a B-29 bomber high above a dry California lake bed, and test pilot Chuck Yeager ignited the rockets that would take him to glory.

That landmark X-1 flight took the bright orange aircraft past Mach 1 -- about 700 mph, at 42,000 feet -- and broke the mysterious sound barrier for the first time in the history of manned flight.

The X-1 went on to museum stardom and now hangs in the "Milestones of Flight" gallery of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. Yeager went on to a long career as the ultimate test pilot and fame in "The Right Stuff" book and film.

And Buffalo's role in the historic effort to push back another frontier of exploration faded promptly into obscurity, even in the city that once served as a cradle of aviation.

Yeager and others are scheduled to mark the flight anniversary this week in California, where the U.S. Postal Service also will issue its commemorative "First Supersonic Flight" stamp depicting Bell Aircraft's X-1.

The Aero Club of Buffalo -- the oldest aviation club in the nation and second-oldest in the world -- on Friday will be joined by other groups to serve as hosts of an anniversary banquet at Samuel's Grande Manor, Clarence. Local efforts to have the new postage stamp unveiled here failed, but a "second day edition station" will be set up at the event.

For the record, as the nation pauses to remember the day the world went supersonic:

The Bell XS-1 -- the name was later shortened to just X-1 -- was built in sections in Bell's Wheatfield plant, then bolted together for initial testing here. America's first faster-than-sound airplane rolled out of the plant doors two days after Christmas 1945.

Bell Aircraft was the pioneering aviation giant that built nearly 14,000 airplanes here during World War II and developed America's first jet aircraft -- making it the Air Force's logical choice for the highly experimental sound barrier program.

Yeager, a young Air Force pilot who had picked up a Bell P-39 fighter here during the war, first got to fire a rocket engine in a hangar at the Wheatfield plant.

The X-1 first "flew" over Lake Ontario, staying shackled to a B-29 "mother ship" in a test of Bell engineer Benson Hamlin's idea that fuel could be saved if the 31-foot, 6-ton aircraft could be carried aloft for air-launching.

Yeager was among the Air Force crew that picked up the completed X-1 here to ferry it to California beneath the B-29.

The idea, he told a News reporter on the 40th anniversary of his flight, was to drop the X-1 in case of an in-flight fire in the bomber, "and maybe I could land it on a road somewhere."

The banquet Friday will reunite some of the engineers who helped build the X-1 here, but pilots will be harder to come by.

Yeager is committed to anniversary events in California and Washington, and Chalmers "Slick" Goodlin -- the Bell test pilot who lost his cockpit seat to Yeager in a contract dispute -- has had to cancel his planned trip here. The only X-1 pilot in attendance will be Joseph A. Cannon of Lewiston, who lost a finger in an X-1 ground explosion that forced him to crawl to safety through a pool of super-cold liquid oxygen.

"I only flew it once because it blew up a week later," said Cannon, who was picked to fly the third of the six X-1 versions built by Bell. "We built six altogether, and most of them came to rather inglorious ends," he said.

A 5Oth anniversary celebration wouldn't have occurred to the test pilots back then, he added.

"I never thought that far in advance," he said.

Former Bell engineer Dexter A. Rosen of Williamsville, now a leader in efforts to preserve Western New York's aviation heritage, isn't that surprised.

"We had a real fraternity going here," he said, noting that the commemoration planners headed by Aero Club President Darla Richter have been hearing from former Bell employees throughout the country. "We'll probably have more than 300 people at this affair."

Yeager still speaks very highly of Bell's engineers but admits that Bell's company test pilots probably were "p.o.'d, to put it bluntly" when he was picked to replace one of their own.

Goodlin was the Bell test pilot who took the X-1 to the very edge of the sound barrier.

"It was an easy plane to fly," he recalled in a telephone interview last week. "The difficult part was keeping track of the pressure gauges."

Featured with crew chief Jack Russell on a new commemorative poster of the X-1 cockpit, Goodlin piloted the X-1 on 26 powered and glide flights "plus seven or eight aborted flights, when we didn't drop from the B-29."

He rocketed the aircraft in carefully planned stages up to Mach .82, in the process triggering the plane's first sonic boom from faster-than-sound airflow over a part of the stubby, straight wings. Goodlin completed Bell's contract by pulling out of a 500 mph dive at eight times the normal force of gravity but left his job when Bell backed out of a "handshake agreement" on a $150,000 bonus for the sound barrier flight.

Goodlin, who had planned to fly here from his Miami Beach home for the commemoration but was grounded by local commitments and the flu, said he still has no regrets about walking away from the flight that made a legend out of Yeager.

"I made a deal with Bell, and they reneged. I couldn't work for them then," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, I did the dirty work in that airplane, making sure it was ready to fly."

Goodlin chuckles over the comment of a British Concorde captain that Mach 1 was "the most overblown challenge in the history of aviation." But, back then, the sound barrier was considered very real and very dangerous.

World War II aircraft nearing the speed of sound in dives had encountered severe buffeting, and controls had reversed or failed. The encounter was often fatal, and the theory was that a wall of air would build up in front of an airplane in an impenetrable barrier.

Hitting it would be like hitting a brick wall. Bell engineers designed the X-1 along the lines of a .50-caliber bullet, a shape they knew already had punched through the barrier.

"I only experienced minor buffeting in the approach to it," Goodlin recalled. And when Yeager lit the burners on Oct. 14, 1947, the X-1 flew through the approach turbulence -- and sailed quietly past the speed of sound, a few miles per hour later.

The world hasn't slowed down since.

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