posted on Nov, 29 2005 @ 11:27 AM
Dr. Richard P. Hallion, then USAF Historian, addressed this question in 1999 in a letter to Col. Jimmy Doolittle, USAF (ret.) at the Society of
Experimental Test Pilots.
"There have been a few rumors through the years that the XP-86 and George Welch might have flown faster than sound prior to Chuck Yeager, but I must
stress that documentation of this event has always been lacking.
The facts that are beyond question are these:
1) The XP-86 Sabre arrived at Edwards (then Muroc) and began flight testing on October 1, 1947, prior to Chuck Yeager's Oct. 14, 1947 flight to
2) In April 1948, powered by the same kind of engine (the J35; production F-86's had the more powerful J47), the XP-86 dove through Mach 1
(probably to about Mach 1.01 or so) piloted by Welch.
3) Therefore, the XP-86 was clearly a genuine transonic aircraft that could transit through the speed of sound, though admittedly only in a dive.
Unfortunately for those who would like to believe in the Welch story, and though I personally think the Sabre was certainly the jet era's most
beautiful and evocative aircraft, I have to say that I am a disbeliever in the claim that it exceeded Mach 1 before the XS-1, for the following
1) I have never seen any record or indication that George Welch, prior to his tragic death in a F-100 inertial coupling accident, ever publicly
claimed in any forum (or, so far as I know, to anyone at all) that he exceeded Mach 1 prior to Chuck Yeager.
2) Further, there are no Air Force or NACA records that suggest that the XP-86 flew faster than the speed of sound before the XS-1, and no North
American Aviation company records have come to light that suggest this either.
3) To my knowledge, no other record or bit of 'hard' evidence has ever been offered to suggest that it could have happened, though Alex Henshaw's
letter suggests otherwise (see below for details).
Even given that the XP-86 went through Mach 1 the following April, it is a long step to take the argument to the next level, and allege that Welch,
on one of the first few flights, went supersonic. The two most prominent aviation historians who have studied and written about the Sabre, notably
Ray Wagner of the San Diego Aero-Space Museum and Robert F. Dorr, have not turned up any proof whatever to support this allegation. Indeed, Dorr,
while repeating rumors that the Sabre might have flown supersonic before the XS-1, concludes that 'Many years later, it can only be speculated that
the XP-86 could have flown at supersonic speed before the XS-1.' [Dorr, F-86 Sabre (Osceola WI: Motorbooks Inc., 1993), p. 10]. For my part, in the
2nd edition of my own book Supersonic Flight: Breaking the Sound Barrier and Beyond (published in the UK, hence the 'British' spelling below) I
addressed this issue in the following terms: 'There have been persistent rumours since 1947 that Welch broke the speed of sound before Chuck Yeager,
but that the Air Force hushed it up. While Welch was reportedly an individual who might well have attempted to do so, an event of this sort would, in
all likelihood, have generated more substantial proof than mere rumour, and, for its part, North American (now Rockwell) has always stated that the
first supersonic foray of the XP-86 was on 26 April 1948, which is consistent with the Sabre's planned flight test programme. Until--if
ever--substantial evidence is produced, rumours that the Sabre was first seemingly fall into the same mythic category as rumoured flights before the
Wrights, or propeller-driven aeroplanes that exceeded the speed of sound. And in any case (as with the Wrights) it was the XS-1 that had the impact
upon both aeronautical science and the popular imagination alike. What is worth noting is that the pace of aeronautical development in the 1940s was
so explosive that a prototype jet fighter could arrive for flight testing with potential performance believed limited only to specialized research
aeroplanes only two to three years before.' [Hallion, Supersonic Flight: Breaking the Sound Barrier and Beyond [London: Brassey's, 1997 ed.), p.
Even allowing that Welch was an adventurous sort, the idea of taking America's first sweptwing high-speed fighter airplane through the speed of sound
prior to the much more carefully thought out assault on Mach 1 (by the XS-1) that had been underway for almost the previous two years is, at least in
my view, both reckless and highly unlikely given that:
--the plane had never flown prior to 1 October, and thus was at the very beginning of its flight test program. Further, it was of a then-new
and very radical--and unproven--configuration.
--it was a one-of-a-kind prototype in a time period when aircraft companies were struggling to stay alive (much like the post-Cold War drawdown we
are now in, but even more extreme) and thus, essentially worth more than its weight in gold. Loss of the prototype might have crippled or even
resulted in cancellation of the Sabre program, with a potentially disastrous impact on North American. It would not have been risked so lightly, I
think. . .
--even on its first flight it had had a mechanical problem with its nose landing gear that almost doomed it to a belly landing and thus, as a
result, there would likely have been a 'proceed cautiously' attitude on the part of the test team as they began to expand its envelope.
--in Sept. 1946, flying a sweptwing (though tailless) a/c, British test pilot Geoffrey de Havilland had been killed when it departed in a violent
longitudinal pitch from transonic trim changes which were not at all well understood until well after this time. It strikes me as highly unlikely
that Welch would risk a sweptwing prototype on a plunge into such uncharted aerodynamic territory as the speed of sound.
Admittedly, in the early 1950's, there were supersonic jet fighters that went beyond Mach 1 on their first flight--for example the YF-100, the
YF-105, and the XF8U-1--but that was after six to eight years of experience with transonic and supersonic aerodynamics, when we knew what worked and
what didn't: not at all like the fall of 1947.
Finally, all of us know Edwards, and know that, while you might keep something secret for a while, you can never really keep it secret for long!
(Just think about innumerable programs, both white and black, and some things that happened that we all remember where people vowed something would
'never get out' . . .) I can't imagine that anything like this could have been kept quiet, especially over the last fifty years.
For all these reasons, I personally find it at best unconvincing that George Welch and the XP-86 flew beyond Mach 1 before Chuck Yeager, and will
remain a firm disbeliever until substantial irrefutable proof is offered up."
Sorry about the extended quote, but Dr. Hallion wanted this information to be shared as widely as possible among interested parties.