The First Rocket Powered Airplanes
by Michael Russell
In 1947, the first recorded flight in excess of the sound barrier was recorded. This was the famous flight of Air force Captain Chuck Yeager in the Bell X-1 rocket powered aircraft. There are disputes that other pilots had previously broken the sound barrier but their claims were not substantiated. This flight was recorded at Mach 1.06 as the peak airspeed.
During World War II, the German Air Force was designing a rocket powered aircraft but the end of the war disrupted these plans. The British turned over some of their plans for a rocket engine to the Americans on a reciprocal agreement but they were later disappointed when the Americans did not turn over any of their technical information pursuant to that agreement. The design of the Bell X-1 aircraft was provided by the agency that is the predecessor for what is now NASA. This development is the driving force behind the development of the Space Program.
The next rocket powered aircraft of notable merit was the United States Air Force X-15. This aircraft broke several records in the 1960s. Several of the flights went down in history as space flight because they surpassed altitudes of 50 miles. The pilots that piloted these particular flights were awarded status as Astronauts. As in the flight of the Bell X-1 aircraft being carried under the wing of a modified B-29, the X-15 was carried into flight under the wing of a B-52. The maximum speed attained during flight was Mach 6.72.
Another rocket powered aircraft that isn't heard of much is the Boeing X43A. It achieved speeds of Mach 10. Due to its engine design, it could travel at higher speeds than the conventional engines. This plane has not been discussed as much probably because it is an unmanned aircraft. These test aircraft were not designed to land but would crash into the ocean after completion of their test flights.
The last plane that we will discuss is the Blackbird (The Lockheed SR-71). The Blackbird was designed to be a long range reconnaissance plane. It's speed was Mach 3. It's initial flight was in 1964 and it was in operation until 1998. It was designed to lessen the detection by radar. The plane flew so high that none were ever shot down do to it's ability to accelerate out of range.
The SR-71 didn't have a long history and it was the predecessor to the Stealth aircraft we see today. The frame was made out of Titanium (which was bought from the USSR during the height of the cold war). The skin was loose and would expand to the correct dimension after it had warmed up after it was airborne. This meant it had to take off with minimum fuel, its skin had to expand and close the gaps then it would be refueled in the air. The plane had a lot of uniqueness about it that made it expensive to operate. The plane ceased operation in 1998.
These are just 4 of the many rocket powered aircraft that are shaping our futures in aviation. The design, the experimentation and the application is why we are where we are now in aviation. This isn't just about the military applications but this research is what gives us the commercial applications as well. Maybe in our lifetime, we will be able to vacation on the moon.
Michael Russell Your Independent guide to Aviation