Nazi-era pilot says he broke sound barrier first

2001-06-12 12:55

Munich - Hans Guido Mutke waves a model of a jet plane and tells the stirring tale of why he thinks his flight in the final days of the Third Reich should be a part of aviation history.

Flying the pioneering Messerschmitt 262 fighter jet in April 1945, Mutke says he was the first person to go faster than the speed of sound as he sped into a sharp dive in an attempt to rescue a fellow pilot under Allied fire.

If true - and many people have their doubts - the story means the Luftwaffe pilot had the right stuff two years before Chuck Yeager's 1947 California flight widely credited as the first to break the sound barrier.

"Virginity is also a barrier, and many were in this area before and maybe after and then someone will come along and marry her officially," said Mutke, who became a gynaecologist after the war.

"He is then officially the first," he said in an interview. "That others may have been there before just won't be spoken about any more."

Or at least for half a century or so. In recent months however, the 80-year-old has stepped up his efforts to win recognition as the first, and he is happy to recall those few minutes in the afternoon sky 56 years ago.

Mutke says he only realised he had broken the sound barrier in 1989 when he discussed his flight with experts at a conference marking the 50th anniversary of jet-powered flight.

Helping a comrade

Mutke's story takes place on April 9, 1945, a month before the war's end as the Allies closed in on Germany from all sides. He was flying a camouflaged single-seater Me-262 "Weisse 9" with a swastika on its tail over Innsbruck, Austria, when he heard that an American Mustang was chasing a rookie German pilot.

"I wanted to help him so I dived down at a 40 to 50 degree angle," he said enthusiastically. "What happened next had never happened to another pilot as I entered a very dangerous realm without knowing it."

The plane started shaking dramatically and the controls ceased to function. Mutke regained control of his jet as the speedometer stuck at 1 100 km an hour.

Engineers later understood that such shaking and brief loss and then regaining of control were typical characteristics of breaking the sound barrier.

"I had no idea what was happening," Mutke said. "I thought there was something wrong with the plane."

Aviation experts told Mutke at the 1989 conference that if true, the story meant that he had exceeded the speed of sound.

Doubts from an old legend

Heinrich Beauvais is one of those who took part in that 1989 discussion. A legendary test pilot, Beauvais flew a wide range of military planes from 1935 to 1945 as well as the Me-262.

Today in poor health in an old-age home in northern Munich, the 93-year-old grows animated as he discusses Mutke. He leafs through a tall stack of notes and papers on early jet aviation stacked on the table in his single room.

"The whole story is highly unlikely," he said. "It is very unlikely that he went through the sound barrier."

Beauvais said the Me-262 was the best plane the Germans had at the time, but went on to point out what he said were small discrepancies in Mutke's story, from his flight altitude, speed of his dive and distance from the other German flier he wanted to save. "He is deceptive," he said.

He then quoted Yeager as saying he would not have known he had passed the speed of sound without a speedometer.

Other experts also doubt the story.

"We have received a number of inquiries regarding German claims of breaking the sound barrier before Chuck Yeager's recorded flight in 1947," said Peter Golkin, a spokesman for the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. "Our curators see no truth in the German stories and immediately shake their heads in disgust when the subject comes up."

Speed clues

Yet some evidence suggests the Me-262, even if not so designed may have been able to fly faster than "Mach-1", the technical name for the speed of sound which varies according to altitude.

One is a formerly classified January 1946, Me-262 pilot's handbook written by the US Air Force after studying the planes captured from Nazi Germany.

"At speeds of 950 to 1 000 km/hr the airflow around the aircraft reaches the speed of sound, and it is reported that the control surfaces no longer affect the direction of flight," the manual reads.

"It is also reported that once the speed of sound is exceeded, this condition disappears and normal control is restored."

Munich Technical University professor Otto Wagner has recently performed Me-262 computer simulations and has concluded the plane may have been able to fly faster than sound.

"I don't want to exclude the possibility," he said. "But I can imagine he may also have been just below the speed of sound and felt the buffeting, but did not go above Mach-1."

Engineers building several working replicas of the Me-262s in the United States say Mutke's story could be true.

"We met with Herr Mutke and having listened to his story, we believe he could have accomplished this in the severe dive and engine flame out while chasing a comrade," said Jim Byron of the Me-62 Project in Everett, Washington.

The new planes will have different motors from the original, so they will not conclusively answer the question of whether Mach-1 was possible in 1945 however.

Long silence

Hindering acceptance of Mutke's story is his long silence, which he says grew out of his fear of his commanding officer when he landed with a battered plane that day.

"When I landed, the commander was furious and demanded to know what I had done with the plane and demanded to know if I had gone above the red mark of 950 km," he said.

"I said 'Of course not. You know, this might be a Monday production.' That means it was made the day after the workers had been drinking,'" he said referring to his dented plane.

Despite his efforts, his comrade in the sky was shot down but the man managed to parachute to safety anyway.

The United States kept Yaeger's record-breaking flight secret for several years in the dark days of the Cold War. But the flight was well documented, unlike Mutke's.

"Anyone can say they were first to go through the sound barrier. But where's the proof?" asked Matthias Knopp, director of the Deutsches Museum's aviation section in Munich.

"My proof is that even though the speedometer stopped at 1 100 km, the plane regained control and could continue flying," Mutke responded.

For aviation buffs, the search for more clues about the Me-262 and Mutke's flight continues, although even backers say because he flew alone without radar control, no one will never know exactly how fast he sped across the sky on that April day.