My life has been spent converting
speed into time. When I first entered the army air corps
in September 1941, I was an 18-year-old kid, and speed
was just the thrill of driving a pickup truck at 50
miles per hour. But when I became a fighter pilot, speed
became time, and time was an advantage over the enemy.
In World War II our P-51 Mustangs not only had
tremendous range but, just as important, were a little
faster than the German Me 109s and Fw 190s that we were
fighting. Speed meant that you could catch the enemy and
Since our job was to escort B-17s,
which were not very fast in relation to the fighters, we
would take bomber groups all the way to the target and
back, protecting them from the Germans.
When jet aviation arrived at the end
of the war, many people asked why pilots wanted to go
faster and faster. Once again the answer was time. Our
objective was to either catch the enemy or outrun him --
to close or extend the distance in time. But we ran into
a problem. Approaching the speed of sound, airplanes
suffered a tremendous amount of buffeting and shaking.
In our P-51s this wasn't a hazard, merely a nuisance as
we tried to track some guy at high speed. But jets were
a different story. In 1944 the army air corps, realizing
that the problem had to be solved, awarded a contract to
Bell Aircraft in New York to build a little rocket
airplane called the Bell X-1. The airplane's single
mission was to somehow fly faster than sound.
When I returned from the war in the
spring of 1945, I was assigned to Wright Field as a
maintenance officer, then was sent to test-pilot school.
When the air force took over the X-1 program from Bell
Aircraft and the National Advisory Committee for
Aeronautics (NACA), I was selected as primary pilot
because I understood systems, and the X-1 was a very
complex airplane. My backup was a first lieutenant named
Bob Hoover, who was one of the better pilots in the
Flight Test Division.
It took nine flights in the X-1 over
a period of 69 days before we had accomplished our
mission and flew the airplane faster than the speed of
sound. That was October 14, 1947. Once again, we were
in control of time.
Breaking the sound barrier meant that
we could develop fighters that had greater speed
capability and could either escape from or catch the
enemy. But my thoughts and feelings at that time went
Controlling time also meant we had
finally opened up the whole universe to travel.
After getting the X-1 above the speed
of sound, we developed swept wings, delta wings, thin
wings, and jet engines with afterburners. We were able
to smoke right on out to twice the speed of sound. As
time went on, we were even able to cruise at speeds
three times the speed of sound and fly across the United
States in an hour's time. This was a great advantage for
the military because it meant that we could fly
reconnaissance planes at various altitudes and at very
high speeds and get data on the military readiness of
different countries -- and do it so quickly the enemy
had no time to respond.
Today we have the capability to
develop aircraft that can not only fly easily at four or
five times the speed of sound but also carry passengers.
Now the control of time is not just in the hands of
People talk about going into space,
traveling to the moon in two or three days, or to Mars
in a few weeks. I suppose that is controlling time, too.
But in my opinion, there is no reason to travel to Mars,
especially when we pretty much know what's there.
Time remains for me a very difficult
concept. Time is a period that elapses between your
birth and your death. What you accomplish during this
time is your legacy. My legacy, I suppose, is speed. But
looking back, I don't think many people really save a
lot of time by moving faster from one point to the next,
because from the time you're born until the time you
die, it's pretty cut-and-dried. When that time comes,
that's it. You have to take advantage of time, not
speed. That's the way I look at it.