Chuck Yeager: Flight Jockey

Chuck Yeager, America’s most famous, and arguably its greatest test pilot earned his place in history this week (Oct. 14) in 1947 when he became the first human ever to fly faster than the speed of sound.  He did so in the experimental X-1 aircraft, which was built to determine whether a fixed-wing plane could withstand the aerodynamic stress that results from flying at sound-barrier speeds.  Not incidentally, there was also some question about whether a human could withstand the stress.

Yeager rode his X-1, attached to the belly of a B-29 bomber, over California’s Rogers Lake, reaching an altitude of 25,000 feet before the X-1 was released through the B-29’s bomb bay.  Rocketing to 40,000 feet Yeager quickly surpassed 662 mph, which was the sound barrier at that altitude, and landed the plane safely. It was learned later, although Yeager neglected to mention it to his superiors, that three days before his flight he had broken several ribs while horseback riding.

But ignoring pain and embracing danger were symptomatic of Yeager’s remarkable career. Born in 1923 in Myra, West Virginia, Yeager enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corp right after high school so that he could fly in World War II.  Shot down in 1943 over France, he escaped to neutral Spain with the help of the French Resistance and although military policy at the time forbade downed pilots from again flying combat missions, Yeager talked the army into making an exception. When WW II ended, he had flown 64 combat missions and downed 13 enemy aircraft.

Throughout the 1950s Yeager continued to test airplanes; in 1952 he set a new air speed record of 1650 mph—more than twice the speed of sound.  Four years later he was given command of the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilots School, whose mission was to train pilots for America’s nascent space program.  Although denied a place in that program, Yeager trained more than half of the astronauts in NASA’s Gemini, Mercury and Apollo programs.

Yeager retired from the Air Force a brigadier general—one of the few to go from enlisted man to that rank—and might have lived out his retirement years in relative anonymity had it not been for publication of writer Tom Wolfe’s national bestseller, “The Right Stuff,” which chronicled the lives of NASA’s first astronauts and Yeager himself.  The book and a subsequent movie made Yeager a national hero and propelled him to a lucrative career as a pitchman and dinner speaker.

On October 14, 1997, the 74-year-old Yeager made his last military-related flight in an F-15 fighter jet.  It was the 50th anniversary of his first historic flight and, fittingly, he broke the sound barrier again.