For his prowess in flight, Gen. Yeager became one of the great American folk heroes of the 1940s and 1950s. A self-described West Virginia hillbilly with a high school education, he said he came “from so far up the holler, they had to pipe daylight to me.” He became one of the greatest aviators of his generation, combining abundant confidence with an innate understanding of engineering mechanics — what an airplane could do under any form of stress.
He first stepped into a cockpit during World War II after joining the Army Air Forces directly out of high school. By the end of the war, he was a fighter ace credited with shooting down at least 12 German planes, including five in one day. Making the military his career, he emerged in the late 1940s as one of the newly created Air Force’s most revered test pilots.
His success in breaking the sound barrier launched America into the supersonic age. While airplanes had long had the power to achieve great speeds, changes in aerodynamic design allowed pilots such as Gen. Yeager to overcome the problems of supersonic air flow as they approached the speed of sound.
He later trained men who would go on to join NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs. Throughout his life, he broke numerous speed and altitude records, including becoming the first person to travel 21/2 times the speed of sound.
Breaking the sound barrier
His greatest breakthrough occurred on Oct. 14, 1947, when a B-29 aircraft released then-Capt. Yeager and his squat, orange Bell X-1 experimental craft at nearly 20,000 feet over California’s Mojave Desert. The Bell X-1 was propelled by a four-chamber rocket engine and a volatile mix of ethyl alcohol, water and liquid oxygen, and Gen. Yeager named it “Glamorous Glennis” after his first wife. Gen. Yeager, traveling at nearly 700 mph, broke the sound barrier.
Breaking the sound barrier was an important military milestone, said Bob van der Linden, an aeronautics expert at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, where the record-breaking plane is on display.
“You win with speed,” van der Linden said. “With the advent of jets and rockets as well, every country was trying to push the limits of technology.”
Van der Linden said Gen. Yeager’s flight and his dedication to helping engineers build better planes helped pave the way for the country’s superiority in military aircraft design for years to come.
Because of the top-secret nature of the work, the Air Force did not publicly acknowledge Gen. Yeager’s most significant flight in the X-1. By December, enough information had been leaked to allow Aviation Week to publish a story. The government didn’t confirm the flight until close to six months later, and even then, Gen. Yeager had been coached to reveal few details of what happened when he reached Mach 1 (named after the Austrian physicist Ernst Mach).
Pilots, including Gen. Yeager, reported trouble controlling aircraft as they approached the sound barrier. But, as he would say in his 1985 memoir, once the X-1 exceeded Mach 1, the ride “was as smooth as a baby’s bottom.”
“Anybody can fly faster than sound as long as he wants to so far as the physical effects are concerned,” the Associated Press quoted Gen. Yeager as saying in 1949. “The fact is, it’s no different than sitting in your armchair at home.”
Such characteristic nonchalance — not to be confused with overabundant confidence — may have elevated rather than played down his achievement, considering the danger inherent in his line of work. Famed British test pilot Geoffrey de Havilland Jr. died in pursuit of Mach 1 in 1946, and others working for private companies had been killed in experimental craft as well. More perished in the years after Gen. Yeager’s flight.
Gen. Yeager refused to hold back when discussing some of his colleagues’ deaths, attributing accidents to pilot error, lack of experience or poor judgment. When Scott Crossfield, the man who beat him to Mach 2, died in a plane crash in 2006 during a thunderstorm, Gen. Yeager told the Associated Press that Crossfield would do things, such as flying in bad weather, that “exceeded his capability.”
Many near misses
Not that Gen. Yeager’s career lacked its frightening moments. While he was able to pull out of at least one situation in 1953, when his plane spun out of control for 50,000 feet, he wasn’t so lucky in 1963 when, after reaching near space, he ejected from an NF-104 and suffered burns that required several surgeries.
Gen. Yeager and others attributed his success as a test pilot to his calm demeanor even in the face of death — “I’ll be back all right. In one piece, or a whole lot of pieces,” he told Time magazine in 1949.
Gen. Yeager appeared just as unruffled after the publication of Tom Wolfe’s best-selling 1979 book “The Right Stuff,” which documented the heyday of test piloting and the early U.S. space program. A popular 1983 film version, starring Sam Shepard as Gen. Yeager, similarly lionized the test pilot for a mass audience. Gen. Yeager had a cameo appearance as a bartender.
While Wolfe described Gen. Yeager as “the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff,” Gen. Yeager claimed to be not that enamored with the designation — “jes’ don’t mean a rat’s fanny,” he told Newsweek in 1985. Nor was he impressed with the interpretation of history in the film adaptation.
Not long after, Gen. Yeager’s best-selling autobiography appeared, followed by endorsement deals that resulted in appearances in commercials for the aerospace and defense company Northrop and the car parts company ACDelco. He retired as an Air Force brigadier general in 1975, although in an honorary gesture, he was promoted to the rank of major general in 2005. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.
From West Virginia to World War II ace
Gen. Yeager made no secret of his preference for hunting and fishing over the trappings of celebrity — an image not at odds with the way he described his upbringing in Hamlin, W.Va., where he was born Charles Elwood Yeager on Feb. 13, 1923.
He was one of A. Hal and Susie Yeager’s five children. His father was a gas-well driller, and the family also farmed. He enjoyed gardening, collecting bugs, hunting with a .22-caliber rifle and fishing in the Mud River. Although not a distinguished student, Chuck Yeager excelled in geometry and used his talents to become an excellent pool hustler. Like his father, he also showed great skill in mechanics and as a teen was able to take apart and reassemble a car engine.
From his father, he inherited a stoicism toward violent death that became his hallmark as a pilot. When Gen. Yeager was not quite 5, his slightly older brother accidentally shot and killed their infant sister. Rather than erupting in hysterics, the elder Yeager calmly told the children, “I want to show you how to safely handle firearms.”
In September 1941, Chuck Yeager enlisted in the Army Air Forces and trained as a mechanic before heading to flight school and then to Europe as a pilot.
In March 1944, while on his eighth mission, he was shot down over German-occupied France. Members of the French underground helped him avoid German forces, eventually pairing him with another American who had been shot down.
The two Americans set off on a grueling journey over the Pyrenees mountain range toward neutral Spain. After pushing their way through knee-deep snow and bitter cold, the exhausted men encountered a cabin in which to rest.
Gen. Yeager’s companion hung his socks outside to dry, a decision that tipped off the Germans to their presence. The Nazis fired into the cabin, forcing the pair to jump out the back window and into a creek. Gen. Yeager realized his companion had been shot in the knee and amputated part of his leg. He carried the injured man into Spain and eventually met up with British forces at Gibraltar.
Gen. Yeager returned to England determined to fly again, even though regulations prohibited anyone aided by members of the underground from going back on duty. The measure was designed to protect the operatives’ identities should any American be captured by Germans on subsequent missions.
Pursuing a return to combat duty, Gen. Yeager climbed his way up the military hierarchy, “being passed around among colonels and generals” who “enjoyed meeting a very junior officer who refused to go home,” he said in his autobiography. With the help of a sympathetic two-star general, Gen. Yeager secured a meeting with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander.
“I just wanted to meet two guys who think they’re getting a raw deal being sent home,” Eisenhower told Gen. Yeager and another pilot who had evaded capture in Holland, Gen. Yeager recalled in his book.
The War Department granted Eisenhower the power to return the pilots to the skies. For his wartime service, Gen. Yeager received the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart and the Air Medal.
Test pilot fame
Upon returning from the war, he married his fiancee, the former Glennis Dickhouse, who died in 1990. In 2003, Gen. Yeager married Victoria Scott D’Angelo, who was 36 years his junior. In addition to his wife, survivors include three children from his first marriage, Susan, Sharon and Don. Another son, Michael, died in 2011.
After World War II, Gen. Yeager served as a flight instructor in Texas before becoming a test pilot at Wright Field in Ohio. He impressed his superiors enough to be transferred to Muroc Field in California, later renamed Edwards Air Force Base, to work on the coveted X-1 project.
He received the assignment of attempting to reach Mach 1 after a civilian pilot who had been testing the craft demanded a $150,000 bonus, not to mention that the head of the test flight division, Col. Albert Boyd, called him “the best instinctive pilot I ever saw.”
Gen. Yeager came close to missing his appointment with the record books. The Sunday before the flight, the pilot and his wife, Glennis, visited the local watering hole, Pancho’s Fly Inn, and then decided to take a late-night horseback ride.
The adventure ended with Gen. Yeager breaking several ribs. To avoid being grounded by an Air Force doctor, he visited an off-base doctor, who told him to take it easy. Instead, he confided in a colleague who helped him fashion a broom handle that would allow Gen. Yeager to close the cockpit of the X-1 with the least amount of pain.
And, so, armed with that implement and little protection other than a leather football helmet, Gen. Yeager accomplished the mission he was given.
“My feelings were immaterial; you have none,” he told Aerospace America in January 2003. “It was your duty, like combat. Some people are going to get killed. You just hope it’s not you.”
Through 1953, Gen. Yeager continued testing planes at Edwards until leaving for Okinawa, Japan, where he flew a Soviet-made MiG captured by Americans. His task was to evaluate the Soviets’ aviation capabilities. Upon returning to the United States in 1957, he became an air squadron commander and then commander of the Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards in 1961. He also commanded a fighter wing and flew combat missions during the Vietnam War.
Gen. Yeager may have seemed a natural for the U.S. astronaut program, but he claimed he would not have qualified because he lacked a college degree. He added in his autobiography years later that he had no interest in being an astronaut, as they were “little more than Spam in the can, throwing the right switches on instructions from the ground.”
Long after his record-breaking flight, Gen. Yeager remained a prominent public figure. The Air Force employed him in its recruitment efforts. Politicians sought his endorsement, although he shook off any notion of running for office. He also was appointed by Reagan to the panel that investigated the 1986 explosion of the Challenger space shuttle.
In 2002, Gen. Yeager climbed into an F-15 Eagle at Edwards and broke the sound barrier, with the characteristic sonic boom, for what he said was the last time (he ended up doing it again in 2007 and 2012).
“I was probably the last guy who will get to do the kind of flying I did,” he said at the time. “I came into the military as an 18-year-old kid before World War II, never having been in an airplane, never having even seen one on the ground. It turned into quite an opportunity.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to physicist Ernst Mach as German. He was born in what was then the Austrian Empire. The story has been revised.
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