The Race to Break the Sound Barrier

“I think we were all so full of energy during the war, and then we tried to turn it off like a tap, but of course that doesn’t work, the adrenaline’s still there, ticking away all the time. It’s best to do something about it.”

- Harold Lindsay-Jones (Alfred Molina), Close to the Enemy

The end of the war thrust Britain, the Allies and the Soviets straight into an arms race to develop the fastest jet fighter. Flying at supersonic speed, breaking the sound barrier, was the ultimate objective. It was as important to all three nations as the space race was to prove ten years later. 

In 1942, the British Air Ministry recognised its negligence in not investing in Frank Whittle’s innovation in jet engine technology when they contracted Miles Aircraft to build a research aircraft under top secret conditions. The plane was required to travel at the ambitious speed of 1,000mph during level flight. Miles Aircraft met the request with a design for the M.52, which incorporated a jet engine designed by Frank Whittle and fitted with an afterburner to increase thrust.

In 1944, design work was considered 90% complete and later that year, the Air Ministry signed an agreement with the United States to exchange high-speed research and data. Bell Aircraft, the company developing the Bell X-1 (the M.52’s rival in the U.S.) was given access to the drawings and research on the British M.52, but the U.S. reneged on the agreement and no data was forthcoming in return.

By the end of the war the British prototype may have been ready to start flight testing within a year, however, the Labour Party was elected in 1945 defeating the conservative Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The new Labour government instituted funding cuts to the defence sector given that the war was now won. As a consequence the Air Ministry cancelled the M.52 in early 1946 and controversially changed the project to a series of unmanned rocket-powered aircraft - missiles.

One of the reasons often cited for this decision was captured German data on high-speed aerodynamics that indicated swept wing designs were superior in supersonic flight. Alas, this information was proved by the Americans to be wrong when they broke the sound barrier in October 1947 with the Bell X-1, a fixed wing aircraft. Its design was very similar to the British M.52. 
The UK government were severely criticised by the press for its decision to cancel their own fixed wing aircraft which may well have beaten the Americans in the supersonic air race.

John Derry was the first British pilot to break the sound barrier in September 1948. David Lean’s 1952 hit film The Sound Barrier captured on film some of Derry’s flying feats and celebrated the fictional British attempts to break the sound barrier. Chuck Yeager who attended the British premiere of the film wrote in his autobiography “When the lights came up I realized that people seated around me thought they had watched a true story.” He turned to a fellow American and exclaimed, “Hey, we broke the sound barrier, not the damned British! And I’m the guy who did it!!”

 August Diehl and Vinette Robinson testing the jet engine in Close to the Enemy

August Diehl and Vinette Robinson testing the jet engine in Close to the Enemy

 Miles Aircraft's M.52 supersonic jet using engine designed by Frank Whittle

Miles Aircraft's M.52 supersonic jet using engine designed by Frank Whittle