Chuck Yeager, who broke the so-called “sound barrier” in 1947 and became the most famous pilot of the postwar era, died on Monday in Los Angeles. He was 97.
Although Yeager’s Mach 1.06 flight in the Bell X-1 boosted his status among test pilots, it was Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff that raised him to the level of pop icon. Yeager’s cool-headed skill as a pilot, along with his irascibility and disdain for astronauts as “spam in a can,” were used to great effect in Wolfe’s book and the subsequent film. It turned Yeager into a larger-than-life figure and made him one of the few contemporary pilots whose name most Americans would recognize.
Charles Elwood Yeager was born on February 13, 1923, in Myra, West Virginia. He graduated from high school in nearby Hamlin and attended the Citizens Military Training Camp at Fort Benjamin Harrison in 1939 and 1940. Besides being an excellent shot, he was fascinated with machines. “My Dad was in the natural gas drilling business down in West Virginia; and, when I was 12, I could tear apart any internal combustion engine he had, rebuild it, and I enjoyed it,” he recalled. “So I went into the service as a maintenance type on airplanes. I had no intention of being a pilot.”
Yeager’s service in World War II would have been enough for most lifetimes. Graduating from P-39 Airacobras, he flew P-51 Mustangs with the 363rd Fighter Squadron and scored 11.5 kills—five of them in one day. After being shot down he was rescued by French resistance fighters, who helped him get back to England via the Pyrenees and into Spain—on foot. He shot down an Me-262 jet while it was landing at a field near Bremen. “I caught him at the end of the runway, with his wheels down, on final approach,” he told an audience at the National Air and Space Museum in 1981. “Very unsportsmanlike.”
Yeager became a test pilot at Wright Field after the war, and was selected to fly the Bell X-1 rocket plane. He also had become a husband, marrying Glennis Dickhouse in 1945, and then a father. On the morning of October 14, 1947, as the B-29 carrying Yeager and the X-1 climbed to altitude (with fellow test pilot Bob Hoover flying chase), Yeager’s thoughts turned for a moment to his domestic life. “Right now Glennis must be turning out our two small boys for their sun baths,” he recalled. “I remembered I hadn’t told her this flight was coming up today.”
The moment he broke Mach 1 was surprising to him, since nothing dramatic happened to the airplane or its pilot. As Yeager recalled in his autobiography, “The great Ughknown was a poke through Jello… The real barrier wasn’t in the sky, but in our knowledge and experience of supersonic flight.”
On December 12th, 1953, five days before the 50th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight, Yeager made his first flight past Mach 2, edging out Scott Crossfield, who weeks before was the first to fly twice the speed of sound. The flight almost killed Yeager. The X-1A tumbled out of control at 80,000 feet after reaching Mach 2.4. After being thrown around inside the cockpit, he breathlessly radioed his chase pilots Jack Ridley and Kit Murray as he pulled the airplane out of its spin:
Yeager: (inaudible, gasping) I’m down to 25,000 over Tahachapis. Don’t know whether I can get back to the base or not.
Ridley: At 25,000 feet, Chuck?
Yeager: I can’t say much more, I got to save myself.
Ridley: What say, Chuck?
Yeager: I say I don’t know if I tore anything up or not but C****t!
Murray: Tell us where you are if you can.
Yeager: I think I can get back to the base okay, Jack. Boy, I’m not going to do that any more.
Murray: Tell us where you are, Chuck.
Yeager: I’m (gasping) I’ll tell you in a minute. I got 1500 pounds source pressure.
Yeager: I don’t think you’ll have to run a structure demonstration on this damned thing!
Almost exactly ten years later, Yeager escaped death again after a rocket-boosted F-104 went into a flat spin after climbing to 104,000 feet. Yeager ejected at 6,000 feet. The ejection seat got tangled in his shroud lines and crashed into his helmet, its rocket engine smashing through his visor and burning his face. He returned to flying within weeks.
Yeager played a key role in two historic flights by pioneering women aviators. Blanche Stuart Scott was the first woman in America to solo in an airplane in 1910, learning from Glenn Curtiss. In 1948, Yeager took her for a flight in a T-33—making Scott the first woman to fly in a jet.
Jackie Cochrane, the Bendix Trophy-winning racing pilot and former WASP commander, was a close friend of Yeager’s. In 1953, with Yeager as her coach and chase pilot, she became the first woman to break the sound barrier. Yeager credited her influence in Washington for his being awarded a Congressional Medal in 1976. “When Jackie Cochran set her mind to do something, she was a damned Sherman tank at full steam,” he recalled in his autobiography.
Between 1954 and 1971, Yeager returned to the world of the fighter pilot with a string of commands: the 417th Fighter Squadron, 413th Fighter Wing, 1st Tactical Fighter Squadron, 405th Fighter Wing, 4th Tactical Fighter Wing, and finally as the Vice Commander of the Seventeenth Air Force. He served across Europe and in Asia, and flew 127 missions over Vietnam. From 1962 to 1966, he commanded the Aerospace Research Pilot School, tasked with training test pilots and astronauts.
Former 417th squadron member Emmett Hatch recalled how he and his fellow F-86 pilots greeted Yeager: “…there was a helluva line of eager young pilots anxious to jump our new squadron commander and see what he was made of. Testing Yeager turned out to be a massacre. He waxed everybody, and with such ease it was shameful. The word got around that he was somebody very special.”
Yeager retired from the Air Force in 1975. For the next four decades, he was in constant motion—consulting on the development of the F-20 Tigershark, working as a pitchman for AC Delco, setting a series of cross-country speed records in a Piper Cheyenne while promoting his bestselling autobiography, serving as Chairman of the EAA’s Young Eagles, and appearing in a cameo role in the movie version of The Right Stuff.
On the 40th anniversary of the first supersonic flight, he was honored by his hometown of Hamlin, West Virginia. After buzzing the crowd in an F-4, he participated in the unveiling of a life-size portrait statue. Yeager was moved by the sculpture, despite being initially skeptical. “Growing up in these hills,” he told the audience, “I thought statues were something they had in Washington for the pigeons to crap on.”
Ever-asked about having the right stuff in countless interviews, Yeager had a ready answer. “There is no such thing as a natural born pilot,” he said. “It takes experience. The right stuff is being in the right place at the right time. And surviving.”