Supersonic Challenges

On October 14, 1947, less than a month after the United States Air Force was formed as a separate branch of the military, Captain Charles “Chuck” Yeager aboard the rocket engine-powered Bell X-1 became the first person to exceed the speed of sound in level flight. The airplane reached Mach 1.06. Mach 1 is, by definition, equal to the speed of sound; that is 768 miles per hour.

Because sound waves move at a finite speed, moving sources, such as aircraft, can catch up with the sound waves they emit as they accelerate. As this happens, sound waves pile up in front of them. If the aircraft is fast enough, it can burst through them causing a sonic boom. The loud noise is a consequence of the change in pressure as the aircraft outruns all the sound waves ahead of itself.

The feat came just over 40 years after Orville and Wilbur Wright, two bicycle makers from Ohio, made the first controlled, sustained flight of a heavier-than-air, powered aircraft on December 17, 1903, four miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. And just over 20 years before Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. In less than a lifetime, humans mastered the sky and knocked on the door of space exploration.

Above your heads, hanging from the ceiling of the Feathers to the Stars gallery, a Northrop F-5B Freedom Fighter, on loan from the National Museum of the United States Air Force, serves as a majestic segue between the evolution of animal flight and origins of human flight, and the future of flight on Earth and space exploration. The supersonic light fighter, capable of speeds faster than 1,000 miles per hour, is an example of human inspiration, aspiration and innovation.

Bringing the airplane into the gallery last December was no mean feat. For it, Frost Science enlisted the help of an invaluable team of experts, including first-class airplane movers and riggers. The aircraft was brought into the building in three pieces (the fuselage, the wings and the tail) through a tight opening between the Frost Planetarium and the level three terraces. The intricate task took our crew 10 hours from beginning to end.

When open, the Feathers to the Stars exhibition will tell the story of flight all the way from the evolution of animal flight, through the development of human flight, to the future of space exploration. A story that is driven by the many challenges that had to be overcome. At a smaller scale, the exhibition itself presented many challenges for us as well. Onwards!

Northrop F-5E
Northrop F-5E (Tail No. 11419). (U.S. Air Force photo)

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