Millions of viewers were glued to their television screens yesterday as skydiver Felix Baumgartner made his world record-breaking jump over Roswell, New Mexico. Encased in a state-of-the-art pressurized suit, Baumgartner leaped from a balloon positioned 24 miles above Earth, hurtling toward the ground at speeds in excess of 800 miles an hour. Baumgartner’s stunt, in which he became the first person to break the sound barrier during a skydive, came 65 years to the day after test pilot Chuck Yeager became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound, on October 14, 1947. As I watched the news coverage of Baumgartner’s stunt, I wondered if Yeager himself was among those tuning in to see humanity’s latest attempt to conquer the skies.
As it turns out, he wasn’t. Instead, the 89-year-old retired Air Force vet spent Sunday morning recreating his own historic flight, albeit with a few key differences. In 1947, Yeager’s experimental plane, nicknamed “Glamorous Glennis,” needed a helping hand to make it into the record books. The plane was lifted to an altitude of 25,000 feet by a B-29 bomber, then released into the atmosphere for the final stretch of its supersonic flight, topping out at around 662 miles an hour. Yesterday, at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas, Nevada, Yeager climbed aboard another Air Force jet, but this time it was an F-15 Eagle more than capable of reaching great heights—and speeds—on its own. After handling takeoff duties, Yeager passed the controls to a (presumably younger) co-pilot and settled in for the ride, 33,000 feet above the same Mojave Desert landscape he’d blazed across in 1947. At 10:24 a.m. PST, 65 years to the minute after the famous feat of his youth, Yeager’s plane once again broke the sound barrier, clocking in around Mach 1.3—just slightly faster than Baumgartner’s maximum speed in his jump later that day. Minutes later, Yeager took the controls again, bringing the jet in for a smooth landing.
Congratulations to both of yesterday’s trailblazers!