Chuck Yeager

Charles E. Yeager (born 1923), a test pilot for the United States Air Force, was the first person to fly a plane faster than the speed of sound.

Charles ("Chuck") E. Yeager was born in Myra, West Virginia on February 13, 1923. His father was a driller for natural gas in the West Virginia coal fields. As the United States began mobilizing for World War II, Yeager enlisted in the Army Air Force in 1941 at the age of 18. In 1943 he became a flight officer, a non-commissioned officer who could pilot aircraft. He went to England where he flew fighter planes over France and Germany during the last two years of the war.

In his first eight missions, at the age of 20, Yeager shot down two German fighters. On his ninth mission he was shot down over German-occupied France, suffering flak wounds. He bailed out of the plane and was rescued by members of the French resistance who smuggled him across the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. In Spain he was jailed briefly but made his way back to England where he flew fighter planes in support of the Allied invasion of Normandy.

On October 12, 1944, Yeager took on and shot down five German fighter planes in succession. On November 6, flying a propeller-driven P-51 Mustang, he shot down one of the new jet fighters the Germans had developed, the Messerschmidt-262, and damaged two more. On November 20 he shot down four FW-190s. By the end of the war, at which time he was 22 years old, he was credited with having shot down 13.5 German planes (one was also claimed by another pilot).

In 1946 and 1947 Yeager was trained as a test pilot at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio. He showed great talent for stunt-team flying and was chosen to go to Muroc Field in California, later to become Edwards Air Force Base, to work on the top-secret XS-1 project. At the end of the war, the U.S. Army had found that the Germans had not only developed the world's first jet fighter but also a rocket plane that had tested at speeds as fast as 596 miles an hour. Just after the war, a British jet, the Gloster Meteor, had raised the official world speed record to 606 miles per hour. The next record to be broken was to attain the speed of sound, Mach 1, which was what the XS-1 project was designed to do.

The measurement for the speed of sound was named after the German scientist Ernst Mach, who had discovered that sound traveled at different speeds at different altitudes, temperatures, and wind speeds. On a calm day at 60°F at sea level it was about 760 miles an hour. This speed decreased at higher altitudes. Airplane pilots who had come close to the speed of sound in dives reported that their controls froze and the structure of the plane shook uncontrollably. A British test plane disintegrated as it approached the speed of sound. Because of these experiences, Mach 1 became known as the "sound barrier."

The Army had developed an experimental plane called the X-1 to break the barrier. Built by the Bell Aircraft Corporation, it was a rocket shaped like a bullet that was launched from another plane once they were airborne. The idea was to send up the X-1 on a number of flights, each time getting a little closer to Mach 1. A top commercial test pilot had been making these flights and had reached .8 Mach, where the plane shook violently. The pilot demanded a large bonus to fly the plane up to Mach 1. The Army refused to pay the bonus, and Yeager was given the job of piloting the X-1 at his usual salary.

In his test flights Yeager was able to get the plane to fly at .9 Mach and still keep control of the plane. It was his personal belief that the heavy vibration of the plane would actually calm down after reaching Mach 1. The date of October 14, 1947 was set for breaking the "sound barrier." On the night of October 12, Yeager went horseback riding and fell off the horse. The next day his right side was in a great deal of pain. Afraid of being taken off the flight, he drove to a local town and saw the doctor there who told him that he had broken two ribs.

Yeager went ahead with the flight without telling anyone of his injury. Because of his injury, he was unable to close the plane's right side door, but he solved the problem by taking the handle of a broomstick with him and using it to close the door with his left hand. Early on the morning of October 14, Yeager went up in the B-29 bomber that carried the X-1. He entered the X-1 and locked himself in at 7,000 feet. The B-29 released the X-1 at 26,000 feet. At .87 Mach the violent vibrations began, but Yeager continued to push the aircraft faster. Just as he had predicted, at .96 Mach the aircraft steadied and he passed Mach 1. At that moment a giant roar was heard on the desert at the experimental test site—the first man-made sonic boom. Yeager reached Mach 1.05 and stayed above Mach 1 for seven minutes. On his way back to the field he performed victory rolls and wing-over-wing stunts.

As soon as Yeager landed safely, the results were telephoned to the head of Army aviation, who ordered the base not to give out any information about the flight. Rumors of the flight appeared in the aviation press in December 1947, but the Air Force (as the Army Air Force became) did not confirm it and release Yeager's name until June 1948.

Yeager continued to test planes at Edwards Air Force Base. In December 1953 he set a new record by flying the X-1A to Mach 2.4. He left Edwards in 1954 and then went to Okinawa where he flew Soviet planes captured in the Korean War in order to test their performance. He returned to the United States in 1957 to lead an air squadron, and flew on training operations and readiness maneuvers at Air Force bases in the United States and abroad. In 1961 he was appointed director of test flight operations at Edwards Air Force Base and the following year was made commandant of the Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards.

In 1963 Yeager tested an experimental plane designed for high altitude flying, the NF-104, to see if it could beat the record set by a Soviet military plane of 113,890 feet. Yeager reached 108,000 feet when the plane spun out of control, and he was forced to eject from the plane. He was severely burned on the left side of his face and left hand. He spent a month in the hospital but was able to return to flying duties and as head of the experimental test pilot school.

Yeager was promoted to brigadier general in 1969, by which time he had flown more than one hundred missions in Southeast Asia in B-57 tactical bombers. Yeager had become the most famous pilot in the United States, and the Air Force called upon him increasingly for its public relations and recruiting efforts. He served in a variety of Air Force positions until his retirement in 1975. He is the recipient of numerous military awards and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985.


Further Reading on Chuck Yeager

Yeager has written two autobiographies. The first was entitled simply Yeager and published in New York by Bantam Books in 1985. This was followed by Press On: Further Adventures of the Good Life, Bantam Books, 1988. An interesting account of Yeager's life was written by William Lundgren and published as Across the High Frontier (New York: Morrow, 1955; paperback edition, New York: Bantam Books, 1987). There is an exciting retelling of Yeager's flights in the X-1 in Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979; paperback edition, New York: Bantam, 1980). Wolfe's book was later made into a movie (Warner Brothers, 1983), with Sam Shepard playing the role of Yeager.