Traveling at supersonic speed might not seem like a big deal now, but before 1947, it was an impossible feat to achieve. The first time a supersonic flight boom was heard by people on Earth was on October 14, 1947. It was created by Bell XS-1 flown by a 24-year old American pilot, Chuck Yeager, who became the first pilot to officially break the sound barrier. But this is not Chuck Yeager’s only achievement. From fighting 64 combat missions in World War II, becoming an ace, breaking his rival’s aviation record for fun, to becoming the youngest pilot to be inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame; the life story of this pilot is nothing short of an adventure story. Keep reading this article to know more about now-retired Brigadier General Chuck Yeager, the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound.
Charles Elwood Yeager was born on 13 February 1923 in Myra, West Virginia and grew up in the nearby village of Hamlin. His first experience with the military was while he was in school. He went to the Citizens’ Military Training Camps during the summers of 1939 and 1940. After graduating from high school in 1941, he immediately joined the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) as a private.
During enlistment, Yeager was denied flight training due to his age and educational background, so, he became an aircraft mechanic at George Air Force Base in Victorville, California. Less than three months after Yeagar’s enlistment, fate intervened and the U.S. entered into World War II. This prompted the USAAF to suddenly change its recruiting standards. Since Yeager fulfilled all the new criteria, he was accepted for flight training.
Since the beginning of training, Yeager displayed natural talent as a pilot. He had unusually sharp vision, and his visual acuity was rated 20/10. His vision was so sharp that he once shot a deer 550 meters away. Yeager graduated on March 10, 1943, and was promoted to a flight officer. Initially, he was assigned to 357th Fighter Group at Tonopah, Nevada. There, he flew Bell P-39 Airacobras while training as a fighter pilot. Once during a training flight, Yeager clipped a farmer’s tree and was grounded for seven days.
After completion of his training, Yeager was sent to the United Kingdom on November 23, 1943. He was stationed at RAF Leiston. There, he achieved one victory, but during his eighth mission on March 5, 1944, his aircraft was shot down over France. In France, he was helped by the French Resistance fighters, Maquis. While staying with them, Yeager taught the group to construct bombs. In exchange, the Maquis helped him in escaping to neutral Spain by crossing the Pyrenees. While crossing the Pyrenees, he met “Pat” Patterson, a B-24 navigator who was also escaping. Patterson was shot badly in the knee. Yeager helped him by cutting off the damaged leg and tying it off with a spare shirt. He was later awarded the Bronze Star for helping Patterson.
Immediately after returning back to the U.S., Yeager wanted to go on combat missions, but his request was denied due to an army policy that prohibited evaders (in this case, escaped pilots) from flying over enemy territory again. So, he, along with another evader, Lt Fred Glover, appealed directly to the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Their effort was fruitful, and Yeager was allowed to fly combat missions again.
After being reinstated, Yeager demonstrated excellent flying skills and combat leadership. He was the first pilot in his group to become “ace in a day”. “Ace in a day” is a term used to signify a pilot who had downed five or more enemy aircraft down in a single day. Yeager became “ace in a day” on October 12, 1944. Two of his kills were made without even firing a single shot! Yeager just flew into firing position against an enemy aircraft and its pilot panicked. In his confusion, the pilot broke to starboard, collided with his wingman and both the pilots bailed out.
By the end of World War II, he had shot down 13 German aircraft and had flown a total of 64 combat missions. His final mission was on January 15, 1945. He returned to the United States in early February.
After returning to the United States, Yeager married Glennis Dickhouse on February 26, 1945. When the war was over, Yeager graduated from Air Materiel Command Flight Performance School and became a test pilot and flight instructor at Muroc Army Air Field. There, he was selected to test-fly a secret, experimental aircraft built by the Bell Aircraft Company. The aircraft, the X-1, was built to test the capability of pilot and aircraft against the severe aerodynamic stresses of supersonic flight. Yeager named the aircraft “Glamorous Glennis” after his wife.
Two days before the scheduled date of this test flight, Yeager fell from a horse and broke two ribs. Worried that if the injury was reported it would make him ineligible for the mission, he revealed it only to his wife and a friend and fellow project pilot, Jack Ridley. Then, he went to a local civilian doctor who taped his ribs. On the day of the flight, Yeager was in such pain that he couldn’t even seal the aircraft’s hatch. To help him, Ridley made a device using the end of a broom handle that could help him seal the hatch. Yeager sneaked the broom handle into the airplane while boarding it.
Overcoming his pain, Yeager made a world record on October 14, 1947, by breaking the sound barrier while flying the X-1 Glamorous Glennis over the Rogers Dry Lake in the Mojave Desert. Since this was a secret experiment, the success of this mission was not announced to the public immediately. The news was made public in June of 1948, and Yeager was awarded the Mackay Trophy and the Collier Trophy. In 1954, he was honored with the Harmon International Trophy. The aircraft flown by Yeager is now on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.
Breaking the sound barrier wasn’t the only record set by Chuck Yeager. He had broken many other speed and altitude records. Yeager was one of the first American pilots to fly a MiG-15. In 1953, when civilian pilot Jackie Cochran became the first woman to break the sound barrier, Yeager was the pilot of the chase aircraft (an aircraft that chases a “subject” aircraft for making real-time observations and to take photographs and videos).
In 1953, he broke the flight record of a rival just to spoil his celebration. On November 20, 1953, Scott Crossfield flew a D-558-II Skyrocket and became the first person to reach twice the speed of sound. To break his rival Crossfield’s record, Yeager teamed up with his friend, Jack Ridley. On December 12, 1953, Yeager set the new record at Mach 2.44 just in time to spoil a celebration in which Crossfield was to be called “the fastest man alive.”
However, during the new record flight, Yeager found himself in a bit of trouble. After reaching the record speed Mach 2.44 (1,621 miles per hour/2,609 kilometers per hour) at 74,700 feet, Yeager lost control of the X-1A aircraft. The aircraft simultaneously rolled, pitched and yawed out of control and dropped about 51,000 feet within a minute. At around 29,000 feet Yeager regained control and then managed to land safely. In 1954, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for this achievement.
Chuck Yeager’s record attempts ended in 1963 after an accident during a test flight. During this test flight, Yeager was piloting a Lockheed NF-104A (USAF 56-0762), and it crashed. At that time, he was the commandant of the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School. In 1969, he was promoted to brigadier general. In 1973, he became the first and the youngest pilot to be inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. After serving 33 years on active duty, Yeager retired on March 1, 1975. In 1976, Yeager was awarded the Congressional Silver Medal, and it was presented to him by President Gerald Ford. Later, he was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan.
Even after his retirement, the indomitable Chuck Yeager continued to fly occasionally for the USAF and NASA. On October 14, 1997, the 50th anniversary of his history-making flight past Mach 1, Chuck Yeager made his last flight as a military consultant and broke the sound barrier once again. Not one to shy away from a celebration, Yeager participated in the 65th anniversary of breaking the sound barrier on October 14, 2012. He celebrated it by riding in a McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle piloted by Captain David Vincent. He was 89 years old at that time.
Currently, 96-year-old Chuck Yeager is living peacefully in the USA with his second wife, Victoria Scott D’Angelo. He is an honorary board member of the humanitarian organization Wings of Hope.