Above speeds of Mach .7 the air flowing over the wing accelerates above the speed of sound, causing a shock wave (also known as a sonic boom ) as the airplane compresses air molecules faster than they can move away from the airplane. The danger of this shock wave is its effect on control surfaces and fragile wing members, and for many years it was thought to represent a near-solid barrier to faster flight. The problems associated with this shock wave were ultimately conquered through the use of swept-back wings and the moving of critical control surfaces out of the wave's direct path. Chuck Yeager, in 1947, was the first to fly at sustained supersonic speed. Other troublesome phenomena associated with supersonic flight are the shock waves that build up at engine air intakes, and the much larger wave that trails after the craft.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.