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Chasing the Demon: A Secret History of the Quest for the Sound Barrier and the Band of American Aces who Conquered It.

Chasing the Demon: A Secret History of the Quest for the Sound Barrier and the Band of American Aces who Conquered It. By Dan Hampton. New York: William Morrow, 2018. Photographs. Glossary. Appendix. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xvi, 331. $28.95 ISBN: 978-0-06-268872-9

The challenge of flying faster than the speed of sound (Mach 1) has inspired numerous books, articles, papers, and even Hollywood films. Hampton, an experienced fighter pilot who has written several books on air combat and one on Lindbergh's historic flight, is the latest author to take on conquest of the mythical sound barrier (the "demon" of the title). So what distinguishes his account from those that preceded it?

Hampton strives to humanize what was primarily a scientific and engineering achievement by writing a popular history focused on five of the test pilots most involved in the quest. Chuck Yeager is the best known. The others are George Welch (who first became famous by shooting down four Japanese aircraft on December 7, 1941), Bob Hoover, Chalmers "Slick" Goodlin, and Ken Chilstrom. Despite the subtitle--perhaps added by the publisher--only two of these five were aces, and probably nothing revealed in the book has been classified since the 1950s. Chilstrom, who like Yeager has lived into his late nineties, was a primary source for the book. He shared many memories with Hampton; and his interviews give the book some insights, interesting facts, and colorful anecdotes not available before.

After presenting a brief history of flight, Hampton summarizes major US and European developments in aviation technology during the interwar years and introduces his five main characters by recounting events in their lives as they grew to adulthood. These chapters set the stage for their experiences during World War II. Even before war's end, a cadre of exceptional fighter pilots had begun transitioning to become test pilots for new jet- and rocket-propelled aircraft, whether with the USAAF, NACA, or contractors such as Bell and North American. The relations among the pilots, engineers, managers, executives, and others involved in expanding the envelope beyond Mach 1 are the heart of the book.

Britain's cancellation of the innovative jet-powered Miles M.52 in early 1946 passed the baton for attempting supersonic flight to the Bell X-1. As this small but sturdy rocket-powered airplane would prove during the following year at remote Muroc Army Airfield in California's Mojave Desert, the mythical demon was not supersonic flight per se. It was maintaining control while flying transonically (starting at about Mach 0.8), when a combination of highly compressed shock waves and subsonic airflow across various parts of an airframe could cause violent vibrations and freeze up flight controls. This seemingly demonic phenomenon caused the destruction of various propeller-driven fighters in high-speed dives as well as some German Me-262 jet fighters and the sleek de Havilland D.H.108 attempting a new speed record in September 1946 (not mentioned in the book). Because contemporary wind tunnels also could not deal with transonic shock waves, an experimental aircraft was the only way to gather critical aeronautical data--NACA's main objective with one of the X-1s. The AAF was more interested in quickly achieving and perfecting supersonic flight, so Chuck Yeager used a second faster X--1 to punch through the sound barrier--and then far beyond.

Hampton's account is highly readable. The book has a good collection of photos but would have been more educational if it had included illustrations of the aeronautical principles described. The story seems adequately researched, and due credit is given to more authoritative books by aviation historians such as Richard Hallion, Michael Gorn, and the late James Young. But, perhaps to satisfy readers who like conspiracies and alternative facts, his book enters the realm of historical fiction by lending credence to persistent, but unsubstantiated, rumors. Hampton follows in the footsteps of Aces Wild, a 1998 book by former test pilot Al Blackburn, in claiming that George Welch surreptitiously exceeded Mach 1 shortly before Yeager while diving supersonically in a brand new XP-86. Based on aeronautics, the existing historical record, and common sense, this theory has been thoroughly debunked by experts such as Hallion and Robert Kempel, a retired NASA flight test engineer who has delved deeply into the controversy--most recently with an 11-page technical critique of Hampton's book in August 2018.

As one form of evidence for the possibility of earlier supersonic flights, Hampton relies heavily on reports of sonic booms. He even credits Welch for a cracked window at "Pancho" Barnes' legendary Happy Bottoms Riding Club near Muroc. Sonic booms, however, are not necessarily proof of supersonic speeds. As described in Quieting the Boom, my NASA history of sonic boom research, it's long been known that aircraft doing certain maneuvers at high subsonic speeds can create "focus booms" louder than those generated by supersonic aircraft flying straight and level. It's therefore quite possible that Bell's Slick Goodlin did this in the spring of 1947 when making an 8-g pull-up from a Mach 0.82 dive in his X--1. And despite the impression perpetuated by Tom Wolfe's error-prone best-seller, The Right Stuff, and the movie that followed, shock waves generated by Yeager's little 31-foot long X-l on October 14, 1947 -- while flying at 43,000 feet no faster than Mach 1.06 for a mere 20 seconds--almost certainly did not reach the surface with enough strength to make a sonic boom. Soon, however, loud sonic booms would become widespread in the area, especially after Muroc became Edwards AFB in 1950.

Lawrence R. Benson, Retired USAF historian
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Author:Benson, Lawrence R.
Publication:Air Power History
Date:Dec 22, 2018
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