Osprey's Bell X-1


Peter Davies


Osprey Publishing


$20.00 MSRP


Scott Van Aken

Notes: 80 pages, 7 x 9 inches, softbound
ISBN: 978-1-4728-1464-7

It is always nice to see a new series of books being produced. Osprey has done this a number of times over the years to meet the needs of the buying public and to try something a bit different. There are times when this hasn't worked (such as the illustrated historical books) and times where it has (the Duel series). This particular series is on X planes and that covers a rather wide variety of prototype aircraft. It is somehow fitting that the X plane that usually comes to everyone's mind when the subject comes up; the Bell X-1.

During WWII many pilots came up against a phenomenon at high speed (usually in dives) where the plane felt like it was running into a barrier of some sort. This caused a lot of buffeting and sometimes airframe failure or loss of control. Of course, this was the build up of air against the aircraft as most planes were not designed to go the speeds these short interval attained. They were up against the Mach barrier, sonic barrier or, as the newspapers later called it, the Sound Barrier.

Post war the US Army Air Force, the US Navy and the British were designing aircraft to go 'through' this barrier. The British were stifled by both funding and lack of a power plant that could push an aircraft that fast. In the US, both the USAAF and Navy were using rockets to provide the thrust needed. Interestingly, both services used the same motor, just with different designations. For the USAAF, Bell Aircraft, which was a relatively small company in need of something to keep employees was building the XS-1, a bullet shaped, straight winged aircraft. The plane had straight wings because design started before the end of the war when German research was not yet available. The Navy started with a straight winged turbojet powered aircraft, the Douglas D558-I. It was fast, but not fast enough and was later supplanted by the D558-II, which did take advantage of German aerodynamic data.

I found it interesting that the author states, "Britain led in jet powered aviation in the early 1940s", however, most of us realize that it was the Germans who not only led the way, but developed both turbojets and rocket power plants into operational aircraft. Now then, it is true that after WWII, the British were the best at turbine power and in many ways still are. I can only assume the author is British so it is somewhat understandable. I also found it interesting that both Bell and the USAAF/USAF felt that NACA was a detriment in the operation of the X-1 program. Initially the USAAF was just a bystander, but when it was realized that NACA would take forever to reach goals thanks to their slow incremental pace, ended up taking over to get things done a bit faster.

That aside, the book concentrates on Bell's initiatives in not only the initial versions of the X-1, but also later variants, some of which never flew and some of which had very short operational lives. The X-1 was one of those planes that was not only cutting edge in terms of its power plant, but also the wings. The wings were extremely thin and showed that one did not have to have swept wings with the incurrent difficulties that type shows at high speed, to have a fast plane. Several wing thicknesses were tried and it was found that the thinner the wing, the faster the plane. The X-1 was also a plane that would be impossible for the pilot to leave in flight. With the door in the side, the pilot wouldn't have much chance leaving as he'd probably hit the wing on the way out. Much later versions had improved escape methods, but were still less than safe planes. It is basically a lot of good luck that no pilots died flying the aircraft. Not only that, but the X-1 series was flying for over 10 years with the last plane being grounded in mid 1958.

The book covers the full development of all the X-1 aircraft and goes into some detail regarding the personalities of those who were involved in the project. The men who flew the plane were just as interesting as the aircraft itself. One also learns a lot about the aircraft and program. I thought I knew a lot about it, but was wrong and was thoroughly enlighten by what I read. For instance, the first civilian pilot to exceed Mach 1 was Bob Hoover in March 1948 after one of the original X-1s was transferred to NACA. The X-1 was also the first plane to break the sound barrier after taking off from the ground in the plane's only ground launch in early 1949 with Chuck Yeager at the controls. This was done simply to beat the Navy.

In all, what Osprey has in this initial volume of the series, is an outstanding book that is both a great history and a very good read. There are some superb photos, all of them nice and clear and this really enhances the book. It is one that I am sure you will like. Highly recommended.

October 2016

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Thanks to Osprey Publishing for the review book. For more on the complete line of Osprey books, visit www.ospreypublishing.com .

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