History of the Boom: Edwards Air Show revisits the history of supersonic flight

Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California’s High Desert has staged test flights for generations of the Air Force’s most advanced aircraft.

While it has been testing U.S. military aircraft since the mid-1940s, the Bell XS-1’s supersonic flight in the Mojave Desert made Edwards famous and paved the way for decades of flying experiments.

Two Bell X-1s and a modified B-29 on the Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., flight line. The X-1 was first placed into a pit then attached to the B-29. The X-1 pit is still a prominent landmark on the base. (Air Force photograph)

In 1944, researchers for the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (the precursor to NASA) met with representatives of the Navy and Army to discuss breaking the sound barrier. At the time, the Army rejected the idea, but continued to advocate for such an effort.

On Oct. 14, 1947, the sound barrier was officially broken, and the phenomenon known as the “sonic boom” was first heard. The risky mission by the Bell X1 team to achieve supersonic flight proved Edwards’ value for flight testing experimental aircraft. Using the unique airspace above and around the field, in less than 15 years, Air Force experimental aircraft would approach speeds of Mach 6 over Edwards.

Conditions suited for supersonic flight testing to break the sound barrier in 1947 still exist at Edwards today. This allows Edwards to be one of the only over-land areas aircraft can legally surpass speeds in excess of Mach 1, primarily due to the impact of sonic booms. For this reason, the R-2508 complex remains a critical asset in the skies above for the United States and its allies.

NASA, a key partner at Edwards, is currently working to reduce sonic booms to a ‘sonic thump’ with the X-59 Quesst aircraft. Anticipated to take flight in the near future, the research aircraft will eventually fly across the United States, with the data potentially paving a way forward for supersonic flight over land. Until that time arrives, Edwards will remain one of the only spots humans can experience the thunderous occurrence.

Thanks to the accomplishments of the Bell X1 team, modern fighter jets can easily reach supersonic speeds. To commemorate the 75th anniversary of supersonic flight, Edwards will host the 2022 Aerospace Valley Air Show & STEM Expo, Oct. 15-16. The weekend will kick-off with a closed ceremony dedicated to the future of supersonic flight, with several sonic booms planned throughout the weekend.

For more information on the Edwards Air Show, click here.

F-35, F-22, and F-16 perform the flyover for the MLB All Star Games
An F-22 Raptor from the 411th Flight Test Squadron, 412th Test Wing, takes off from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to conduct a flyover to kick off the 2022 MLB All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, July 19, 2022. (Air Force photograph by Giancarlo Casem)

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