Who went supersonic first? Yeager, Welch, or the Nazis?

Eric Dehm
August 28, 2018 - 12:33 pm

Photos courtesy USAF. Bookcover courtesy Harper Collins

Chuck Yeager was the first to break the sound barrier. That's the official line from the USAF, the one that's been taught in schools for decades, but is it accurate?

Retired USAF fighter pilot Dan Hampton's newest book "Chasing The Demon" tells the story of the race to be the first to go faster than the speed of sound. And when telling that story "who did it first?" is a big part of the tale. There are anecdotes that a Nazi pilot or two might have actually done so during the war but Hampton presents and discusses compelling evidence, long known in the pilot community, that Yeager was beaten to the supersonic punch by two full weeks, and not by some anonymous pilot but a well-known WW2 ace named George Welch.

While you might think that Hampton is merely recounting rumors that have floated around for years, the book goes much deeper than that. For proof, consider that the primary source for much of the information given to Hampton was Col. Ken Chilstrom. Chilstrom, now 97 years old, was Yeager's boss when the events took place. 

Chilstrom acknowledging Welch's success begs a question: considering Welch was a decorated war hero, best known as one of only two pilots to get off the ground to combat the Japanese planes bombing Pearl Harbor, why wouldn't the Air Force want to acknowledge his alleged accomplishment? Hampton believes it's mostly due to the fact that Welch wasn't ever technically an Air Force pilot. In 1947 when the barrier was broken, Welch was a civilian test pilot, having left the service 3 years earlier as a member of the USAF's precursor, the Army Air Corps.

Creative Commons Photo

"The Air Force had just become the Air Force," Hampton said during an appearance on the Morning Briefing radio show. "The new Secretary of the Air Force, a guy named Stuart Symington, wanted to hang his hat on something to show 'hey, look we really do need to be a separate service and therefore justify that huge funding stream you're gonna get us. Look! Look at what we did: we just went supersonic, first people to do it!' He basically told everybody, including North American Aviation, that the Air Force would be first no matter what. So that's why it fell out the way that it did."

Hampton was curious what Yeager himself, now 95 years old, would have to say about the claims that Welch was first. He reached out to the legend and discussed the issue a couple times until, according to the author, Yeager's wife cut off all contact between the two. 

DoD Photo

"His reply to all of this, as it has been all these years and is probably quite right, he says 'show me the evidence,' and you can't really argue with that." Hampton said. "I think he knows this really happened, he would never admit to it though. Y'know, he's built his life and his career on it, so I can't blame him there. Regardless of who broke it, it's important to realize these were all brave, talented guys who were taking chances they didn't need to."

You can listen to the full interview with Hampton below, including his advice to vets interested in becoming published authors, below.

To listen later, click Share and select Download from the available options.

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