Way back in 1947, the same year the U.S. Air Force was born, a young captain strapped himself into an “airplane,” and, for 20 glorious seconds, flew faster than the speed of sound. Many aircraft fly faster than the speed of sound now, but none could have done it if Chuck Yeager had not paved the way.
Yeager’s Earlier Years
Chuck Yeager was born in 1923 in West “By God” Virginia. Graduating high school in 1941, Yeager joined the U.S. Army Air Forces on September 12 as an aircraft mechanic. After the U.S. entered WWII, Yeager clamored to fly. However, with only a high school education, commissioning was out of the question. Nevertheless, given the dearth of pilots, Yeager was promoted to flight officer (warrant officer, a rank the current Air Force does not have), and given flight training.
The War Calls
After completing initial flight training, the young flight officer was whisked off to Tonopah, Nevada, to train on the Bell P-39 Airacobras. From there, he shipped off to RAF Leiston, in the U.K., and joined the 363rd Fighter Squadron, flying the ubiquitous P-51 Mustang.
From 1943 to the end of the war, Chuck Yeager racked up an impressive 11.5 air-to-air victories. He was shot down once, in March 1944, over France. He made his way to Spain, then back to England, and was repatriated in May. He directly pestered General Eisenhower into putting him back in the air and flew out the rest of the war.
Test Pilot Career
Once the war was over, newly-commissioned Captain Chuck Yeager, along with his pregnant wife, was assigned to Wright Field, back in West “By God” Virginia. With 61 missions under his belt, plus the flight time he had accrued in training and his mechanic background, Chuck became a functional test (FT) pilot. FT pilots are a different breed. The Air Force certifies some pilots as FT, OT, or DT. Functional test flights happen after a plane receives major repairs. A plane’s first flight is a functional test and pilots must be accordingly certified. Operational test (OT) puts an aircraft through operational mission testing, verifying the aircraft can perform the mission it is tasked for. Developmental test (DT) pilots try out new systems on jets: Avionics upgrades, mission software, even experimental weapons, are all tested by DT pilots and crews.
Breaking Down Barriers
As a test pilot, Captain Yeager was approached in 1947 by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) about flying faster than the speed of sound. The pilot who originally intended to fly the mission was civilian pilot Chalmers “Slick” Goodlin, who turned the offer down because NACA wouldn’t pay his fee of $150,000.
On October 14, 1947, Yeager strapped himself into a Bell X-1 (X for experimental) rocket-powered aircraft, was dropped from a B-29 Superfortress, and the rest is history.
The Bell X-1 Yeager piloted was named Glamorous Glennis, after Chuck’s wife. Unbeknownst to anyone but his wife and a friend, Yeager had broken two ribs a few days before. His friend Jack Ridley rigged a piece of broken broom handle so Yeager could seal the cockpit because he was in too much pain to do it on his own. The flight was over the Mojave Desert and Yeager reached a speed of Mach 1.05 at 45k feet. “There was no buffet, no jolt, no shock,” he later recalled. “Above all, no brick wall to smash into. I was alive.”
Yeager’s accomplishment went unreported until a year later. Breaking the sound barrier was a major advancement, and the government considered the news Top Secret until June of 1948.
Chuck Yeager continued as a test pilot in the USAF for years after his record-breaking flight. He was involved with the X-1A program, eventually surpassing Mach 2 in 1953. This flight did not go as well as the first, though, and the aircraft experienced control issues unknown at the time. Fortunately, Yeager was able to recover the jet. The lessons learned from that flight were rolled into new design parameters on new aircraft.
Chuck Yeager Trains Astronauts
First and foremost, Chuck Yeager was a fighter pilot, and his Air Force assignments bore that out. He commanded fighter squadrons and wings in Germany, France, Spain, and back in California. As a full “bird” colonel, Yeager became the first commandant of the Aerospace Research Pilot School (ARPS), the USAF’s astronaut training school. Though he did not have the educational requirements to become an astronaut, he had the skills to train them.
After commanding ARPS, in 1966 Yeager was assigned command of the 405th Tactical Fighter Wing at Clark Air Base, Philippines. From there, he flew over 100 missions, some over Vietnam. From there, he went on to command an F-4 Phantom fighter wing as vice-commander of 17th Air Force and became a brigadier general. After that, he acted as advisor to the Pakistani Air Force, and retired in 1975.
Chuck Yeager Keeps on Soaring
General Yeager stayed busy after retirement. He made a cameo appearance in The Right Stuff, the movie based on Tom Wolfe’s book on the men who worked as test pilots for the USAF. He stumped for George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential bid. He also lent his experience to video game designers, advising on three flight simulator games produced by EA. Above all, he kept flying.
On the 50th anniversary of Mach travel, Yeager flew the Glamorous Glennis III, an F-15D Eagle, beyond Mach 1, and on the 65th anniversary, sat co-pilot in another F-15 as it broke the sound barrier. Yeager was 89 years old at the time.
Maybe not as cool as breaking the sound barrier, but pretty cool nonetheless, Yeager drove the pace cars in two Indianapolis 500 races, in 1986 and ’88. He was a spokesman for ACDelco at the time and for the races drove a Corvette and Cutlass Supreme, respectively. After the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, President Reagan appointed him to the Rogers Commission, which investigated the causes of the explosion.
Chuck and Glennis Yeager settled in Northern California after he retired from the Air Force. After Glennis’s death, Chuck remarried in 2003. He continued to speak at public events, telling his stories and those of the people he worked with.
Chuck Yeager died in hospital on 7 December 2020; he was 97 years old. Another day which will live in infamy.