Last October, when I wrote a commemorative on the anniversary of the Bell X-1’s exceeding Mach 1, I spent many minutes contemplating my office wall. Or more precisely, what’s on my office wall. It’s one of a short list of my possessions that spark Kondo-esque joy: a fabulous pen-and-ink illustration of the Bell X-1 cockpit by Belgian-American artist Jean-Luc Beghin.
I grabbed a Post-It note and wrote “X-1 video” reasoning that there’s enough source material to pull together a nice video on the X-1, one of history’s most interesting airplanes. I figured I could knock it out in three days. A week into it, halfway done isn’t in sight, but I’ve accumulated a small library on X-1 lore. The more I learn about it, the more I wonder how anyone survived flying the damned thing. You know all about the late Chuck Yeager, but about a dozen others flew the X-1 series, if not X-1 number 1.
Beghin’s drawing prominently features Chalmers “Slick” Goodlin standing outside the cockpit alongside Jack Russell, the program’s crew chief. You may or may not know who Goodlin was. He was one of a handful of Bell test pilots who spirited the early X-planes through their initial testing before handing them off to the Air Force for completion of the assigned research programs.
When I phoned Beghin to ask about his illustration, he mentioned something I’ve heard before. Goodlin was always unhappy with the way he was portrayed in the “The Right Stuff,” both the book and the film version. Both depicted him as a money-grubbing mercenary who would only take the X-1 to Mach 1 and beyond if he was paid $150,000. While that was true, it’s also true that civilian test pilots were routinely paid bonusses for dangerous flight test work in those days.
And boy, was the X-1 series dangerous. Fires, explosions, malfunctions and gear collapses were common. Of the seven X-1s built for the first- and second-generation programs, three were lost to fires or explosions. One, on the ground, took the EB-50 launch ship with it. Two had to be jettisoned over the desert only to explode on impact. The X-1 pictured in Beghin’s drawing caught fire during a press demo and had to be repaired. (It’s 6063, the number 2 X-1, not the one Yeager flew on his Mach 1 flight.)
In his well-detailed “Into the Unknown,” author Louis Rotundo tells of several harrowing flights which put Goodlin close the edge. In one, he ran out of oxygen and had to breath cabin air, albeit at low altitude. Unbeknownst to him, the windshield de-icing system—which never worked very well—was leaking isopropyl alcohol and caused him to lapse into semi-consciousness on approach. The airplane bounced and skidded, collapsing the nosegear—a common occurrence—but Goodlin survived and emerged groggy but in one piece.
On another flight, Goodlin had to cope with frozen ailerons. Bell built the X-1 to an astonishing 18-G load limit and so little was known about shockwave propagation, that they tried to think of every possibility. One was flutter, so the ailerons are fitted with flutter dampers using a silicone oil. At altitude, the oil thickened and combined with ice, it locked them against flutter, but also movement by the pilot, too. As so many of pilots of his day had to do, Goodlin prevailed.
Although Yeager gained the fame, Goodlin and the other Bell test pilots—Dick Frost, Jack Woolams, Tex Johnston, Jean Ziegler—were probably Yeager’s equals, although Yeager had a better mechanical background. Like Yeager, Goodlin was a World War II pilot trained by the military—Navy in his case—to be a test pilot. He began work with Bell in 1943.
Although taking research aircraft to the ragged edge was done by military pilots, the Bell pilots endured just as much risk in testing new aircraft that had never been flown before. They had to do considerable envelope expansion to satisfy the terms of their contracts and sometimes they did repeat tests after the airplanes had been handed over.
In the X-1s, just flipping the engine switches on was an exercise in blind faith. The Reaction Motors XLR-11 rocket engine proved to be a reliable performer, but reliable is relative. It blew up a lot. An RMI test engineer described developing it as “hellishly dangerous” and crouched behind a concrete wall wearing a football helmet during test runs. Yeager once said he was relieved when he switched on a chamber without an explosion.
By the time Goodlin handed the first X-1 to Air Force, most of the Gremlins had been chased away—and at no small risk and with considerable skill. It’s too bad Tom Wolfe had to paint Goodlin as a heavy. He was in fact a consummate professional.
Beghin’s illustration was done in 1997 for the 50th anniversary of Yeager’s flight. Beghin had hoped to work with Yeager but he wanted a lot of money for the help. As he always had, Slick Goodlin stepped up. He gave freely of his time and loaned Jean-Luc his flight helmet and checklist, which you see sitting on the seat. I never met Goodlin, but others who have say he was approachable and a genuinely nice guy. He died in 2005. I’m happy to say my print is signed by both Goodlin and Jean-Luc Beghin.
And you know, sometimes it’s just worth saying exactly that. While I’m at it, I’ll put in a plug for Jean-Luc. His drawings are fabulous and not expensive. You probably want one for your own office wall. Find them here.