Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier 34 years ago next Wednesday, and kept on going. The way things are now, ain't nobody's likely to catch up.
He did it in the Bell X-1, a rocket plane with "Glamorous Glennis" painted on its pointy nose. He had been warned that if he actually went through the sound barrier his ears would fall off. He still has his ears. He also still has Glamorous Glennis. She's his wife. The Smithsonian got the rocket plane, which now hangs from the ceiling of the National Air and Space Museum, where he is visiting this week.
The reason nobody is likely to catch up is that the age of the personal milestone is pretty much over in aviation, and in a lot of other fields, too.
"I was jes' in the right place at the right time," Yeager explains. It sounds like modesty, but don't let the West Virginia accent fool you. The right time to be Chuck Yeager is past. He didn't miss it -- everybody else did.
The story of Brig. Gen. Charles E. Yeager, USAF (Ret., 1975), starts at either end, and anyplace you pick it up there is a sonic boom of one sort or another: His 13 kills in what his famous drawl renders Worlwortwo; or his breaking the sound barrier in 1947; or his 100,000-foot fall in a doomed F104 rocket plane in 1964, with the inside of his helmet on fire; or his booming across next week's sky at the age of 59 in a modern F18 he might be "testing" for the Air Force. Or just razzing astronauts, an old hobby ("I was enshrined in the Space Hall of Fame last week," he said. "I was the first pilot they let in.")
"The ultimate form of flying is combat," he said. "Everything else is secondary. Research flying comes second. Your ability is based on your experience. Shoot, nobody's really better'n anybody else. Other people could have flown the X-1, too. But, of course, I had fought a hell of a lot of war by then and I had the experience." War and the Ace
He was an ace at 21. He had a P-51 Mustang shot out from under him, and walked out of Germany to a new plane. Of his 13 confirmed kills, five came on one mission. And although he was a pioneer in the testing of jet fighters, he is fond of saying that the first jet plane he ever saw he shot down.
"Outfly 'em and outshoot 'em," was his theory of aerial combat. In his P-51, with its six .50-caliber machine guns, he liked to get up real close to the German Messerschmitts. "Get up about 100 feet behind," he said. "Then hammer them. Drop down a little and hammer them underneath. Maybe kick a little rudder and slide off the side and hammer them there -- that way the pieces falling off go right on by. And, of course, your wingman is looking out somebody doesn't do the same thing to you.
"Dogfights are pretty impersonal. You never think about the guy in the cockpit. It's all eyesight and tactical advantage. If you're right, it works out. If you aren't, it don't."
One particular day, Yeager hammered five ME-109s, one after another. He shot one down and then went on to the next. "When we got back they counted up the ammo I had left," Yeager said. "I had only used 159 rounds total."
On another mission, Yeager saw his first jets -- German ME-262s that started to appear at the end of the war. They went by his P-51 in a flash. "The first couple I did score some hits on, but then they were gone. But I just stuck around up there about 8,000 feet. Pretty soon along comes a third jet, and I realize he's going to make a landing on a field near Bremen. I caught him at the end of the runway, with his wheels down, on final approach."
Yeager was telling this anecdote at a lecture Wednesday night at the Air and Space Museum. His audience, many of them military pilots, was captivated.
"Very unsportsmanlike," Yeager added, with a wolfish grin, to gales of laughter. The Making of a Test Pilot
By 1947, the ultimate form of flying was not available, and Yeager had become a test pilot, and the X-1 his plane. He was making a series of tests that brought him closer and closer to the sound barrier, the mysterious portal to supersonic flight. It was mysterious because when a conventional plane approached it, buffeting set in, the controls lost their usefulness, and planes crashed and pilots died. The speed of sound varies with altitude, and then as now was referred to in Mach numbers -- Mach 1 being about 763 mph at sea level, or 660 mph at 45,000 feet.
"We'd approached it during combat sometimes. Going straight down flat out in a Mustang you'd get about point-eight Mach number, and the buffeting would start. So I had a little experience. The engineers couldn't explain it. I would say about 50 percent of all the engineers said you just couldn't exceed the speed of sound, and that was all there was to it."
At Muroc Air Base in California, later to become Edwards Air Force Base, Yeager's X-1 was flown aloft under the belly of a B29. Once aloft, Yeager would climb down through the 240-knot slipstream, crawl into the rocket plane and shut the door behind him. Then Yeager and the X-1 would be dropped like a bomb, he would flick on the liquid oxygen- alcohol rocket, and take off like a roman candle. The buffeting would start. The rocket plane would go out of control. Yeager would regain control, and land. That was what test pilots were for. Then back to the drawing board. -- TR for ad 1 -- add e The Supersonic Surprise
Yeager was not an engineer. He had joined the Army just out of high school in Hamlin, W. Va., and had not been to college.
"But I'd had a rifle as a boy, and done some shooting in the woods and such. I knew that bullets went supersonic. And once in a while, I'd remember finding a bullet I'd fired lying underwater at the edge of a pond. You could see that it wasn't distorted or anything. So I didn't think anything funny would happen to me."
On Oct. 14, 1947, Yeager flicked on the rocket switches of the X-1 and blasted through the wall and out the other side for the first time in history. The test data collected from his previous flights had revealed that at near supersonic speeds the shock wave pattern altered shape so that it rendered traditional aerodynamic controls useless. Modification of the aircraft's horizontal stabilizer solved the problem. Simple as that.
"People were real surprised that we had done it," Yeager said, "and to find that my ears didn't fall off or anything." The surprise was such that his accomplishment was kept secret for a year, which he admits was "exasperating."
"The military application of the testing data was very valuable," Yeager said. "Because of what we learned about buffeting, the horizontal stabilizer of the Sabre jet -- which was on the boards at that time -- was redesigned. When Korea came along, we only lost one Sabre jet for every 12 MiGs. When a defector finally brought us a MiG, and we went and looked at it, we found the horizontal stabilizer was fixed -- just welded right onto the tail. That's what had made all the difference in the Korean dogfights. Our pilots couldn't have been all that much better than theirs."
Chuck Yeager might have seemed a natural candidate for the space program when it came along. But Chuck Yeager never seemed to think there was anything natural about the space program at all.
When reporters had asked him about the Mercury program, Yeager allowed as how it was his understanding that a monkey was going to make the first flight.
His recollection is accompanied by a broad grin.
"In the Mercury capsules, you weren't flying," Yeager explained. "You were sitting there strapped in with your arms folded. And you didn't land the thing. It fell into the ocean, and you waited for $10 million worth of ship to come rescue you."
But surely, for a pilot, it would be a thrilling ride?
"Well, let's just say that I don't want to fly anything where you have to sweep the monkey crap off the seat before you sit down."
When NASA went ahead with the space program, it stripped the military rocket-plane program of funds. This distressed Yeager and many others, since by 1962 the rocket planes were up to the X-15, which had hit 4,000 miles an hour, very close to Mach 6, and there were still bigger plans to come.
"If we'd been allowed to continue, the X-20 could have accomplished the space-shuttle mission as early as 1966," he said. "It was the same deal. The same kind of launch, the same kind of ship, the same landing on Rogers Dry Lake. And the X-20 would have had 60 percent of the cargo capacity of the space shuttle." But the X-20 was never built. Having the Right Stuff
Yeager is a hero to pilots everywhere, but since the first breaking of the sound barrier is long gone (the Concord flies at Mach 2), he might have been forgotten were it not for his role in "The Right Stuff," an evocative revisionist history of astronaut life by the writer Tom Wolfe. Wolfe presented Yeager as a paradigm of Righteous Stuff, and top man on the flyboy ziggurat.
This kind of writing about airplane drivers drove Gen. Yeager to the dictionary, but he says he kind of enjoyed it.
"Well, when Tom first came around and said he was writing about me, he sent me a couple of his previous books. I tried to read them, but I had no idea what he was talking about, about velvet gloves and stuff like that ("Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine"). Most fighter pilots are kind of unemotional, but then again you have to dramatize things up a bit in order to sell books. And, of course, he seemed to like me a lot more than he did the Mercury capsule guys."
"The Right Stuff" ends with a bravura description of Yeager's most spectacular scrape with eternity, which occurred in a plummeting NF104 rocket plane. Is it correct?
"Well, Tom kept interviewing me over and over again and he kept getting the technical stuff wrong because, of course, he's not a pilot. So, finally, I wrote it out for him myself, and he put it into his own words, and that's the way it came out." Yeager still carries part of this story with him. It is faintly visible on the left side of his neck. Old scar tissue, well-healed, almost completely faded. The Real Test
It is 1963. Yeager takes the NF104 up for a shot at an altitude record. He blasts up to 104,000 feet, 20 miles high, at something over Mach 2.2. At the apogee he can't get the nose down. Turns out nobody has tried to do exactly this stuff with this plane before, and therefore nobody knows that the nose won't come down under these precise conditions. So the plane falls back into the atmosphere like a shotgunned duck, the wrong end pointing down.
Yeager does all the things they teach you in test-pilot school, which is one way to pass the time as 70,000 feet pass by the window, the spin trying to push you through the cockpit wall. He pops his drag parachute, tips over nose down, releases his drag parachute. But the trick fails and suddenly he's falling hind-end first again. At 24,000 feet the plane has stopped spinning. Now it's falling flat, and Yeager is the dead duck. At 11,000 feet, he tucks himself into a ball and ejects. The plane is falling at 100 mph and the rocket-powered ejection-seat with Yeager in it explodes straight up at 90 mph, and Yeager is floating in the air above his plane. Then the ejection seat "butt-kicker" kicks him out of the ejection seat.
Hot dog, his parachute is opening. Unfortunately, the 180-pound ejection seat is floating up there among the parachute lines, its seat rocket burning the lines. Then the seat falls on his head and knocks him silly. What hits him is actually the still-burning rocket exhaust, which fills his helmet with fire. The atmosphere inside his helmet is pure oxygen, so the fire is burning brightly. What is on fire is his head. To get the helmet off he sticks his finger into the fire and his finger starts to burn up, too.
Yeager lands on the desert, smoking and dancing around, and gets the helmet off. A passing motorist runs up and loans him a penknife, which Yeager uses to cut the burning glove off, along with part of his burning finger. Then the motorist looks at Yeager's face, and pukes.
"Well," Yeager said, "what happened was my eye socket filled up with blood, which caked from the fire and protected my eye. Then, in the hospital, they picked the scab off my burns every day. Hurt like hell. But that's the secret, you know. They pick off the scab so you don't get that thick, crinkly scar. Instead you get a smooth effect."
Gen. Charles F. Yeager is now doing consulting work. Movies, TV, things like that. He is a consultant for the Air Force on an unpaid basis. This allows him to fly all the latest fighters and continue to have fun. His reflexes are all right, he says, but his eyesight seems to be fading.
When he was 21 it was 20/10. Now, at 59, it is down to 20/15.