News / USA

Memories of Pioneering Pilot Bill Bridgeman, Once the 'Fastest Man Alive'

Multimedia

Audio
Mike O'Sullivan

Bill Bridgeman was a pioneering test pilot, once known as the fastest man alive.  He told his story in a best-selling book called "The Lonely Sky," in 1955.  The book has been reissued, and recalls a time when flight records were broken almost monthly, a time famously chronicled in Tom Wolfe's 1979 book "The Right Stuff."  "The Lonely Sky" was a best-seller two decades before that, and remains a classic for aviation fans.

Bridgeman tested experimental airplanes for the Douglas Aircraft Company.  Flying an advanced craft called the Skyrocket in August 1951, he reached Mach 1.88 - nearly twice the speed of sound - and claimed the world speed record and unofficial altitude record.   Bridgeman appeared on the cover of "Time" magazine, hailed as the "Fastest Man Alive."  

Memories of Pioneering Pilot Bill Bridgeman, Once the 'Fastest Man Alive'
Memories of Pioneering Pilot Bill Bridgeman, Once the 'Fastest Man Alive'

His achievement surpassed a flight four years earlier by famed test pilot Chuck Yeager, who was the first aviator to break the sound barrier in the X-1 experimental aircraft.  Yeager went on to claim other records, however, and his fame kept growing.

Bridgeman's wife and coauthor, Jackie Hazard, was a former reporter, and says she and her husband met when a newspaper sent her to interview him.

Hazard says Yeager and Bridgeman were colleagues and rivals, and Yeager at times flew the "chase plane," watching tests of the experimental aircraft.   During one such test flight, she says, Bridgeman's plane went into a spin, something the engineers had warned against.

"Now, down below on the ground, all these engineers are listening," says Hazard.  "So he didn't obviously say anything and Chuck doesn't say anything, and Bill goes into a spin.  And Chuck just follows him down and he gets to the end of the spin, pulls out, and Chuck looks over and says, 'Oops.'"

She says test pilots protected each other, and Yeager was covering for his friend, even though engineers learned what happened by examining data from the test flight.  They had been tipped off by Yeager's humorous exclamation.

By late 1953, other pilots, including Scott Crossfield, would go on to break speed records, approaching and passing Mach 2.  And Chuck Yeager would go on to claim more speed and altitude records.  

Hazard remembers her late husband as a quiet but confident man, a trait he shared with his fellow test pilots.

"I think most of the test pilots are extremely confident.  And they're not much for small talk.  Bill never was, but he had a great sense of humor... He didn't like the publicity he got at all, but he put up with it" says Hazard.

Bridgeman tried to join the corps of U.S. astronauts through the Air Force, but was not chosen for the program after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was formed in 1958.  The new space agency, known as NASA, favored fliers who were engineers, and many veteran test pilots like Yeager and Bridgeman found themselves left out of the program.

Hazard says these men had a pioneering spirit.

"I don't think you can say the same thing about astronauts, because that's engineering and it's mechanical and it's technical," says Hazard.  "They've got courage.  I'm not saying they don't have courage.  You've got to have courage to get in one of those things.  But it's not the same as the test pilot.  They're a different breed entirely."

She says the early pilots who pierced the upper reaches of the atmosphere had a spirit of independence.  Most were veteran fliers from World War II, but she says test flights were different, because Bridgeman and the other pilots on those experimental missions had only their flying skills to rely on in case of trouble.

"When he was out in the Pacific flying, he wasn't alone.  He had all of his buddies [in the sky near him] and they were all going out to bomb the Japanese islands or something.  But when you're waiting for this flight in the Skyrocket, you're alone," says Hazard.

After many dangerous flights in experimental aircraft, Bridgeman retired and began flying routine commercial flights from Long Beach to Catalina Island, off the coast of California.  One calm day in 1968, his airplane plummeted into the ocean and he was killed instantly at the age of 53.  No one ever learned the reason for the crash; there was speculation that he had suffered a heart attack or that mechanical failure brought down the airplane.

Hazard says her husband's legacy can still inspire future pioneers who are willing to push the limits.

You May Like

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

Audio 'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populationsi
X
April 24, 2015 10:13 PM
A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

VOA Blogs