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Major George S. Welch

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Welch with his XP-86 Sabre

George Welch, Major, USAF (May 10, 1918 October 12, 1954) was a World War II flying ace, a Medal of Honor nominee, and an experimental aircraft pilot after the war. Welch is best known for allegedly being the first pilot to break the 'sound barrier' (one week before Chuck Yeager) in his prototype XP-86 Sabre. However, the flight is generally not recognized as an official record because of a lack of a verifiable speed measurement.

His Early Life

George Welch was originally born George Lewis Schwartz, but changed his name to avoid the anti-German sentiment surrounding World War I. His father was a senior research chemist for Dupont Experimental Test Station at Wilmington, DE. He attended St. Andrew's School (1936). He completed 3 years of a mechanical engineering degree from Purdue University where he joined The Delta Upsilon fraternity before joining the Army Air Corps in 1939.(USAAC flight training schools: Brooks; Kelley; Randolph Fields - San Antonio, TX; Hamilton Field - Novato, CA)

World War II

After receiving his wings and commission in January, 1941, Welch was posted to the 47th Pursuit Squadron, 15th Pursuit Group, at Wheeler Field, Oahu, Hawaii. At dawn on December 7, 1941, 2nd Lt. Welch and another pilot, 2nd Lt. Ken Taylor, were coming back from a Christmas dinner and dance party (with big band orchestra) at a roof-top hotel in Waikiki, that ended in an all-night poker game, and were still wearing mess dress, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Welch telephoned an auxiliary strip at Haleiwa on Oahu's North Shore to have two Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighters prepared for takeoff and with Taylor immediately drove his Buick at high speed to join the air battle. Upon taking off with only 30 cal ammo in the wing guns, Welch claimed two kills of Aichi D3A Val dive bombers over Ewa Mooring Mast Field, the first was only damaged and it made it back to its carrier, the second was finished off by Ken Taylor, before landing at Wheeler Field to get 50 cal ammo for his two cowl guns. On his second sortie Welch shot down a Val which was behind Ken Taylor and the Val crashed in the community of Wahiawa, then Welch got a Mitsubishi Zero about five miles west of Barbers Point. Both Welch and Taylor were nominated for the Medal of Honor by Gen. Henry H. Arnold, but were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for their actions.

After Pearl Harbor, Welch returned to the continental U.S. to give war bond speeches until being assigned to the 36th Fighter Squadron of the 8th Fighter Group in New Guinea. Dissatisfied with the considerably older Bell P-39 Airacobra, despite three kills (two Vals and a Zero) on December 7, 1941, Welch repeatedly appealed to be transferred to the 80th Fighter Squadron (which flew the P-38 Lightning) until he was granted a transfer. Between June 21 and September 2, 1943, flying a P-38H, Welch shot down 9 more Japanese aircraft: one Dinah, 2 Zeros, 3 Ki-61 Tonys, and 3 Ki-43 Oscars. Welch flew three combat tours (a total of 348 combat missions with 16 confirmed credits, all achieved in multiples) before malaria retired him from the war.

Welch left the USAAF in July 1944 and became chief test pilot for North American Aviation's Inglewood, California production plant.

Welch was portrayed in the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora! by Rick Cooper.

The Hero Of Pearl Harbor

Breaking The Sound Barrier

In the spring of 1944, Welch was approached by North American Aviation to become a test pilot for the P-51 Mustang. With the recommendation of General Arnold, Welch accepted. He went on to fly the prototypes of the FJ Fury, and when the F-86 Sabre was proposed, Welch was chosen as the chief test pilot.

In September, 1947, the F-86 project moved to the Muroc test facility (now Edwards AFB, California), the same base at which the Bell X-1 was being developed. North American was instructed by Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington that they were not, under any circumstances, to break the sound barrier before the X-1 achieved this milestone. However, Welch disregarded this order, and during a test flight on October 1, 1947 he entered a steep dive from 35,000 ft. During the dive, Welch observed symptoms compatible with Mach jump, and according to some, a sonic boom was heard at the base. However, due to problems with the landing gear, further full-speed flights were delayed. On October 14, the same day that Yeager was to attempt supersonic flight, Welch reputedly performed a second supersonic dive. This time he started from 37,000 ft, and executed a full-power 4g pullout, greatly increasing the power of his apparent sonic boom. Yeager broke the sound barrier approximately 30 minutes later.

To justify the investment in the X-1 program, the Pentagon allegedly ordered the results of Welch's flights classified and did not allow North American to publicly announce that the XP-86 had gone supersonic until almost a year later. The Air Force still officially denies that Welch broke the sound barrier first. However, in the film that the USAF made about Yeager's flight the narrator says that Yeager was the first man to "fly faster than the speed of sound in level flight" (see Sound barrier - Media). Welch's flights were unofficial and not tracked by NACA measuring equipment, making verification impossible (pitot tubes of the day suffered from compressibility effects near the speed of sound).

Developing The XP-86

Who Broke The Sound Barrier First ?

Who Was Really The First?

The Mach Match


His Later Career

Welch went on to work with North American Aviation in the Korean War as Chief Test Pilot, engineer and instructor where he reportedly downed several enemy aircraft (MiG-15 "Fagots") while "supervising" his students. However, Welch's kills were in disobedience of direct orders for him to not engage, and credits for the kills were thus distributed among his students.

After the war, Welch returned to flight testing this time in the F-100 Super Sabre - his F-100's chase plane was flown by Yeager. Welch became the first man to break the sound barrier in level flight with this aircraft on May 25, 1953. However, stability problems with the aircraft arose and on Columbus Day, October 12, 1954, Welch's YF-100-A disintegrated during a 7g pullout at Mach 1.55. When found, Welch was still in the ejection seat, mortally wounded, and was aided by NAA test Navion pilots Robert "Bob" Baker and Bud Pogue and med-evacuated out by helicopter, but was pronounced dead on arrival at the army hospital.