On October 14, 1947, Captain Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager became the first pilot to break the sound barrier. Flying the rocket-powered Bell X-1, he achieved Mach 1.06. Fifty years later the USPS commemorated that event with a 32-cent postage stamp honoring the first supersonic flight, and Chuck Yeager recreated his original flight at the First Day of Issue ceremony. As the Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of the U.S. Postal Service, I had the honor of dedicating the stamp that day.
Thousands attended the festivities and release of the new stamp, held on October 14, 1997, at Edwards Air Force Base in California, sight of the original supersonic flight. Retired Air Force brigadier general Yeager took off in an F-15 fighter jet followed by the same pilot in the chase plane who had followed him fifty years earlier. Yeager, speaking to the crowd from the cockpit, timed it so that exactly when he flew over the enthusiastic crowd, the big sonic “BOOM” signified that he had just flown at a speed faster than the speed of sound. After landing, he spoke to the crowd. Then the two of us unveiled the stamp design.
In accordance with USPS guidelines that living persons can not appear on a stamp, neither Yeager’s name nor his image could be part of the stamp design. Artist Phil Jordon and illustrator Paul Salmon were careful not to portray Yeager’s profile in the cockpit. This was not the first time that an airplane on a stamp appeared as if no pilot was on board. After Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, the Post Office Department issued an airmail stamp depicting the Spirit of St. Louis with no mention or image of Lindbergh.
Yeager’s wife, Glennis Faye Dickhouse, however, has her name on the stamp. Yeager had named the Bell X-1 “Glamorous Glennis” in her honor. [Click on the object and use the enlarging tool to find the error in this stamp design. Upon close examination of the plane’s name near the nose, you will see that the name is misspelled “Glenna” instead of “Glennis.”] You can see the Bell X-1 on display at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.
Here are excerpts from my speech that day. “The First Supersonic Flight stamp pays tribute to American technological achievement and reminds us that, throughout our nation’s history, many barriers once thought impossible to break have been surpassed with a powerful combination of scientific know-how and human spirit. For more than 150 years, stamps have marked the milestones, the fundamental principles, and the extraordinary achievements that have shaped this country. The First Supersonic Flight stamp is a perfect example of how these noble ideas and ideals can be brought to life for everyone to enjoy.”