Charles Elwood Yeager is an American hero and an aerospace pioneer without peer. He was a fighter pilot in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam (flying over 200 combat missions); a test pilot for the Air Force and NASA; commanded the Flight Test Pilot School; was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame and the International Space Hall of Fame; and, oh yes, became the first person to break the sound barrier. He has flown 201 different types of aircraft and logged 14,000 flying hours (almost four times the hours of all seven Mercury astronauts, combined!).
Yet Chuck Yeager is a man who many Americans don’t know.
Chuck was born in West Virginia in 1923. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps just before Pearl Harbor and was trained as an aircraft mechanic. Private Yeager was destined for bigger things though. When the Army allowed enlisted personnel without college degrees to train as pilots, he showed his natural talent for flying. After completing his training, Yeager was sent to England to fly combat missions in P-51 Mustangs. He had a beautiful girl friend back home named Glennis; and for the next 35 years of his military career, Chuck always named the aircraft assigned to him as “Glamorous Glennis.”
One of Hitler’s “secret weapons” was the Messerschmitt Me 262. It was the world’s first operational jet fighter and saw its initial combat in April of 1944. Pilots of this airplane claimed 542 Allied kills. But on one mission a young pilot named Chuck Yeager claimed one of the few victories over this secret weapon. Later, he said, “The first time I ever saw a jet, I shot it down.” Yeager flew 64 missions over Germany and occupied France during 1944-45. The Messerschmitt Me 262 became one of his 13 kills. Yeager also became a member of a very select pilot’s club called “Ace in a Day” when he shot down five enemy fighters in a single day.
On his eighth mission, Lt. Yeager was shot down over France. With the help of the French Maquis, guerilla bands of resistance fighters, he was able to cross the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. Before returning to England, he assisted and trained many of these freedom fighters. As an “escaped pilot,” Yeager was not permitted to fly missions over French territory for fear that if captured he might be forced to reveal information about their activities. He wanted desperately to fly again and took his plea directly to Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower who concurred with Yeager. Chuck flew another 56 combat missions in Europe.
He returned to the U.S. in February of 1945 and became a test pilot as well as an evaluator of German and Japanese aircraft brought back after the conflict. Two years later, Yeager was reassigned to Edwards Air Force base in California as a project officer for the experimental rocket plane, the Bell X-1. He had it marked the “Glamorous Glennis” of course (see the photo below).
On October 14, 1947, Chuck Yeager made aeronautical history in the skies over the Mojave Desert. He volunteered to attempt to break the mysterious sound barrier in the X-1. But two days prior to the effort, Yeager had broken two ribs in a horse riding accident. He concealed this fact from all but Glennis and his best friend. On the day of the test, in intense pain, he climbed into the cockpit. The X-1 was suspended from the belly of a B-29 bomber and both went airborne. At 45,000 feet, the Glamorous Glennis was dropped and Yeager took it up to Mach 1.07, being the first person to travel faster than the speed of sound. “The real barrier wasn’t in the sky but in our knowledge of supersonic flight” he said.
Six years later, another U.S. pilot reached Mach 2.0 (twice the speed of sound). Yeager would have none of that and later that same year, he took his X-1A to Mach 2.44 . It almost cost him his life. The aircraft lost aerodynamic control at 80,000 ft. It dropped one thousand feet per second for 51 seconds. Finally, Chuck Yeager was able to reestablish control at 29,000 ft and landed the airplane without injury or damage.
When depicted in the 1983 film “The Right Stuff,” Yeager was portrayed as making quick, impulsive decisions about piloting test aircraft. This was never the case. Chuck Yeager was courageous, yes; but he was never fool hardy. He once said, “I was always afraid of dying. Always. It was my fear that made me learn everything I could about my airplane and my emergency equipment; it kept me respectful of my machine and always alert in the cockpit.” In 1962, Yeager became the first commandant of the USAF Flight Test Pilot School, training astronauts for NASA and the Air Force.
The following year, he faced death in the air again. While testing an NF-104 rocket augmented aerospace trainer, the craft went out of control at 108,700 ft (the edge of space). Chuck Yeager valiantly tried to regain control as the airplane plummeted to 8,500 ft before he ejected. This real life event was dramatized in the climax of the film “The Right Stuff.”
During the balance of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, He commanded four different fighter squadrons and became a Brigadier General and Vice-Commander of the 17th Air Force. In Vietnam, Yeager (in his late forties) flew another 127 missions. In 1973, he became the first and youngest military pilot to be inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame. Chuck Yeager retired from the Air Force in 1975 but remained as a consultant for them for the next 25 years. He was paid $1 a year; but was allowed all the flying time he wanted.
In 2004, Congress recommended that Chuck Yeager be promoted to Major General. He became only the third man ever promoted after retirement from the military. The other two, Billy Mitchell (father of the Air Force) and Jimmy Stewart, both had continued to contribute to the service well after their retirement, as did Yeager. The only list longer than the aeronautical records he set is the number of decorations he earned including the Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, Special Congressional Silver Medal (the equivalent of the Medal of Honor), the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and many others.
On October 14th of last year (2012), on the 65th anniversary of his first breaking the sound barrier, Chuck Yeager once again climbed aboard a new Air Force F-15 Eagle and set out from Nellis AFB, Nevada. Not being able to help himself, he once again piloted this aircraft into breaking the sound barrier one more time. An astonishing feat for a man who was 89 years old. “Somehow I always managed to live to fly another day.”
Charles Elwood Yeager is a man thought by many to be the greatest pilot in American history.