Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager

The Greatest Pilot Of The Greatest Generation

(February 13th,1923 – December 7th, 2020) 

Seventy-nine years to the day after the attack on Pearl Harbour, famed test pilot, World War II ace, and the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound, Brig. Gen. Charles “Chuck” Yeager, died at the age of 97. 

Chuck Yeager in 1948. The previous year, he became the first pilot to break the sound barrier.Credit…Associated Press

Making History

On October 14, 1947, Yeager forever shattered the myth of the so-called “sound barrier” when he piloted his Bell X-1 Glamorous Glennis to 700 miles per hour (Mach 1.06) 43,000 feet above the southern California desert, when he climbed out of a B-29 bomber as it ascended over the Mojave Desert in California and entered the cockpit of an orange, bullet-shaped, rocket-powered experimental plane attached to the bomb bay.

The X-1 program contributed greatly to the understanding of the challenges of transonic and supersonic flight. Of great significance to the security and prosperity of the country, these lessons were directly applied to the next generation of military and commercial aircraft, keeping America in the forefront of aeronautical research.

Background

Born in Myra, West Virginia, on February 13, 1923, Yeager grew up in nearby Hamlin, the second of five children of Albert and Susie Mae (Sizemore) Yeager. Yeager came out of the West Virginia hills with only a high school education.

By the time he was six, Chuck was shooting squirrels and rabbits and skinning them for family dinners, reveling in a country boy’s life.

He developed an innate understanding of all things mechanical.

This ability held him in good stead in his military career as his knowledge of machines and his exceptional skills as a pilot would make him an ideal test pilot, despite his lack of a formal college education.

Yeager, center, in front of his P-51 Mustang with his ground crew when he was an Army Air Forces fighter pilot in Europe. Credit…Courtesy of Chuck Yeager

World War Two Combat Ace

He enlisted in the Army Air Corps out of high school in September 1941, becoming an airplane mechanic. One day he took a ride with a maintenance officer flight-testing a plane he had serviced and promptly threw up over the back seat. He was accepted for pilot training in the flying sergeant program in July 1942, earning his wings and his appointment as flight officer in March 1943.

He later said that he joined the flight program for enlisted men, figuring it would get him out of kitchen detail and guard duty. He received his pilot wings and appointment as a flight officer in March 1943 while at a base in Arizona. Following the completion of advanced training, Yeager was assigned to the 357th Fighter Group of the 8th Air Force flying from England.

On Oct. 12, 1944, while piloting his North American P-51 Mustang and leading three fighter squadrons escorting bombers over Bremen, Germany, he downed five German planes, becoming an ace in a day. In November, he shot down another four planes in one day.

On March 5, 1944 on his eighth mission, he was shot down over France by a German fighter plane and parachuted into woods with leg and head wounds. Members of the French underground hide him from the enemy. Yeager made it to neutral Spain by climbing the snowy Pyrenees, carrying a severely wounded flier with him, and returned to his base in England.

He rejoined his unit soon thereafter, serving until February 1945 when he returned to the United States to serve as an instructor pilot.

Yeager destroyed 13 German aircraft in air-to-air combat. Included in his remarkable tally is one Messerschmitt Me 262, the world’s first operational jet fighter.

Painting: “Yeager’s First Jet” by Roy Grinnell 

Speed of Sound

In July 1945, Yeager was assigned to Wright Field, Ohio, where he first engaged in experimental flight work.

Following this assignment and until 1954, Yeager flew experimental aircraft from Muroc Army Air Force Base, which later in December 1949 was renamed Edwards Air Force Base.

He was chosen over more senior pilots to fly the Bell X-1 in a quest to break the sound barrier, and when he set out to do it, he could barely move, having broken two ribs a couple of nights earlier when he crashed into a fence while racing with his wife on horseback in the desert.

On October 14, 1947, he became the first person ever to fly faster than the speed of sound, creating history’s first sonic boom across the floor of the dry lake beds.

His aircraft, a Bell X-1 Glamorous Glennis, was named after his wife.

Yeager wrote in his memoir, “After all the anticipation to achieve this moment, it really was a letdown. There should’ve been a bump in the road, something to let you know that you had just punched a nice, clean hole through the sonic barrier. The Ughknown (?) was a poke through Jell-O. Later on, I realized that this mission had to end in a letdown because the real barrier wasn’t in the sky but in our knowledge and experience of supersonic flight.”

The Air Force kept his feat a secret, an outgrowth of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. In December 1947, Aviation Week magazine revealed that the sound barrier had been broken; the Air Force finally acknowledged it in June 1948.

Yeager returned to Europe as Commander of the 417th Fighter Squadron and in 1957 was assigned to the 413th Fighter Wing at George Air Force Base, California. In 1958 he became commander of the 1st Fighter Squadron at Moron Base, Spain.

Vietnam

Yeager graduated from the Air War College in June 1961, and became Commandant of the Aerospace Research Pilot School in July 1962.

He commanded a fighter wing during the Vietnam War while holding the rank of colonel and flew 127 missions, mainly piloting Martin B-57 light bombers in attacking enemy troops and their supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

In 1966 assumed command of the 405th Fighter Wing at Clark Air Base, Philippines, during which time he flew combat missions over Vietnam.

Returning home in 1968, Yeager took command of the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, and in 1969 advanced to Vice Commander, 17th Air Force based in Ramstein, Germany. In 1971 he became the United States’ Defense Representative to Pakistan, and in 1973 became the Director of the Air Force Inspection and Safety Center at Norton Air Force Base.

Medals

General Yeager received the Collier and MacKay Trophies for 1948 and the Harmon International Trophy for 1954. His awards included the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star with one oak leaf cluster, the Legion of Honor with one oak leaf cluster, the Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters, the Bronze Star medal with “V” device, the Air Medal with 10 oak leaf clusters, the Air Force Commendation Medal, the Purple Heart, the Distinguished Unit Citation with one oak leaf cluster, and the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award Ribbon.

He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, from President Ronald Reagan in 1985.

He was a command pilot with over 10,000 hours in 155 types of aircraft.

The actor Sam Shepard, left, and General Yeager on the set of the 1983 film “The Right Stuff,” in which Mr. Shepard played General Yeager. Credit…Warner Bros.

Right Stuff

Although a legend in the aeronautical community, Yeager’s accomplishments were not widely known.

Thanks to Tom Wolfe, Yeager came to personify the death-defying aviator who possessed the elusive yet unmistakable “right stuff,” in the 1979 publication of Tom Wolfe’s book ‘The Right Stuff ‘ and the subsequent movie four years later. This highlighted Yeager’s career as a test pilot, making him an immensely popular public figure.

Yeager was the first man to “catch the demon” on the far side of the speed of sound.

“All I know is I worked my tail off learning to learn how to fly, and worked hard at it all the way,” he wrote. “If there is such a thing as the right stuff in piloting, then it is experience. The secret to my success was that somehow I always managed to live to fly another day.”

He was, according to Tom Wolfe, “the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff.

After serving as head of aerospace safety for the Air Force, he retired as a Brigadier General in 1975.

Pilot Chuck Yeager poses with the Bell X-1 Glamorous Glennis during a visit to the Museum in 2015.
 

Smithsonian

In 1950, General Yeager’s X-1 plane, went on display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington.

Yeager was a people’s person and also a good friend to the Smithsonian Museum. For decades he visited the National Air and Space Museum on or about the anniversary of his supersonic flight, each year regaling hundreds of enthralled visitors with stories of his extraordinary career.

A Legend

NASA’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, described General Yeager’s death in a statement  as “a tremendous loss to our nation.” The astronaut Scott Kelly, writing on Twitter, called him “a true legend”.

General Yeager became a familiar face in commercials and made numerous public appearances. Flying F-15 planes, he broke the sound barrier again on the 50th and 55th anniversaries of his pioneering flight, and he was a passenger on an F-15 plane in another breaking of the sound barrier to commemorate the 65th anniversary.

In finishing, it was said that Yeager possessed a natural coordination and aptitude for understanding an airplane’s mechanical system along with coolness under pressure. He enjoyed spins and dives and loved staging mock dogfights with his fellow trainees.

A legend has passed.

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