|I found this while browsing for WWII aircraft/pilot information for the WWII Fighter thread. I was unaware of this claim so I thought I would post it to see if anyone else had heard about it.
The gist of the post is that George Welch of North American Aircraft Co. beat Yeager to the Mach barrier by a couple of weeks. It was kept quiet because they wanted a "military pilot" to get the official record.
The Web page has sources that I have not checked. Incidentally, this is the George Welch that shot up the Japanese at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941!
"......Welch pushed the throttle up to full power and the Sabre surged forward. “Don’t go away, Bob. I just want to feel it out a bit.”
Easing back on the stick, Welch began a steady rate climb at just under 350 mph. Zooming up at over 4,800 feet per minute; it took but a few minutes to reach 35,000 feet. As he leveled off, airspeed quickly increased to 370 mph. After a double-check of his instruments, Welch rolled into a 40 degree dive, pointing the nose west, directly at Pancho’s Fly Inn, several miles away.
If ever any aircaft looked right, the XP-86 was certainly one of them. With perfectly clean lines, the Sabre could not help but be a winner. This is how the XP-86 appeared after being reassembled at Muroc. Within a few days, it would punch through the sound barrier.
The airspeed indicator wound up to about 405 mph, and seemed to get stuck there. Yet, there was no doubt that the XP-86 was still accelerating. Everything felt normal, until passing below 30,000 feet where a tendency to roll needed some minor correction. George pushed the nose over a bit more. Then, suddenly, the airspeed indicator jumped beyond 470 mph and continued to go up. Passing 25,000 feet, Welch eased back on the stick and pulled back the throttle. Once again, there was a bit of wing roll and the airspeed indicator jumped back from 520 to 450 mph (520 mph indicated translates to 720 mph true at this altitude, uncorrected).
Contacting Chilton, Welch joined up with the P-82 as it was time to head back to Muroc. Due to ongoing rigging, the speed brakes had been disabled and were not available. This would complicate the landing approach because jet fighters took quite a while to scrub off airspeed, not having a propeller functioning as a giant, circular air brake. Descending towards the lakebed, Chilton slipped underneath the Sabre as Welch slowed and lowered the landing gear. Once again, the main gear locked down. The nose gear, however, refused to extend beyond the halfway position. Welch cycled the gear up and down several times to no avail. He tried the emergency pump. That too failed to push the nose strut into position. Radio discussions with the North American engineers on the ground produced no solution. Welch even tried pulling several Gs of loading. Nothing worked. With fuel rapidly becoming an issue, Welch elected to make a long, straight-in approach. Touching down at 140 mph, Welch trimmed the nose full up, intending to hold it up as long as possible. Racing alongside the Sabre were crash trucks and a pickup with a motion picture camera. As the Sabre’s speed dipped below 90 mph, Welch began easing the nose down. Just then, the nose gear snapped down and locked in place. The wheel touched, and the XP-86 rolled out normally. George’s luck had held again.
Prior to heading back to North American to brief the engineers, George telephoned Millie Palmer. Excitedly, Millie related that a terribly loud ba-boom had nearly blown her out of bed. The time was noted and it corresponded to George’s dive. “Pancho”, Millie related, “is really pissed. You know how she feels about Yeager.” Apparently, Pancho claimed the boom was a result of mining operations going on 30 miles away to the north. Of course, no one had previously heard any mining explosions, nor could that account for rattling windows only on the east facing side of the Fly Inn. Welch chuckled and swore Millie to secrecy.
After briefing the engineering team at North American, Welch tracked down Ed Horkey. There were some “funny” instrument readings during the dive, and George was looking for some answers.
Test pilot Blackie Blackburn describes the conversation:
“I started at about 290 knots”, Welch explained. “In no time I’m at 350. I’m still going down, and I’m still accelerating, but the airspeed indicator seems stuck like there’s some kind of obstruction in the pitot tube, I push over a little steeper and by this time I’m going through 30,000 feet. All of a sudden, the airspeed needle flips to 440 knots. The aircraft feels fine, no funny noises, no vibration. Wanted to roll to the left, but no big deal. Still, I leveled out at 25,000 and came back on the power. The airspeed needle flicked back to 390. Whadya think?”
“What did the flight recorder look like?”
“It wasn’t on the flight card, I was just feeling it out, so I wasn’t running the camera. Anyway, there wasn’t anything wro