Chuck Yeager (Obituary, 8 December) is rightly celebrated for his role in breaking the “sound barrier”’ in October 1947. But what seems like an all-American triumph was actually very reliant on British technology and design. The first man to break the sound barrier could well have been British: Captain Eric Brown, who had been designated as the test pilot for the Miles M52.
Yeager’s aircraft, the Bell X1, had several unique design elements that allowed it to fly supersonically and not become uncontrollable or to break up in flight. These were its bullet-shaped fuselage, its straight, thin wing, its “all flying” tailplane and, for its day, a lot of power. These were all design features of the Miles M52, under development at the end of the second world war in Britain, with the aim of achieving 1,000 mph flight.
In August 1944, as part of a technology exchange agreement with the US, a party of very high-ranking Americans arrived to inspect the Miles aircraft design, including General “Hap” Arnold (head of the United States Army Air Forces) and staff from the Bell Aircraft Corporation. Afterwards, for “security” reasons, no reciprocal visit by British officials to America was allowed.
In the end, with the first prototype virtually complete, the M52 project was cancelled by the British government in February 1946, on the grounds of cost and pilot safety. The conventional view was that supersonic flight was impossible and would kill anyone who tried it, although Brown was willing to take the risk and help Britain take the lead in supersonic flight.
Addingham, West Yorkshire