Lt Chuck Yeager after his first kill - march
people, Chuck Yeager is a true hero in the strictest
definition of the word. Throughout his career, Yeager
displayed distinguished courage and performed several
extraordinarily brave deeds, although he only considered
such acts as following his duty. Many people recognize
Yeager as the first person to officially break the sound
barrier, but that feat is only one of his many important
achievements. Without a doubt, Yeager is the world's most
famous test pilot not only because of the records he set,
but also because of his determination, his ability to remain
calm in difficult situations, and his ability to quickly
analyze problems and find a solution. He is one of the
"toughest" pilots, both mentally and physically, in aviation
history, and few have ever matched his piloting skills.
Charles "Chuck" E. Yeager was
born on February 13, 1923, in Myra, West Virginia. The son
of a gas driller, Chuck grew up working with a wide variety
of mechanical devices. He could readily take apart an engine
and put it back together without difficulty. A few months
after his high school graduation, Yeager joined the U.S.
Army Air Forces.
Yeager had no real interest in
learning to fly when he first joined the Air Forces. He
simply wanted to be a mechanic. The main reason he enlisted
in the Army was because the Army recruiter was more
persuasive than the Navy spokesperson. Furthermore, unlike
many famous aviators, Chuck's first encounter with an
airplane had left him unimpressed. When Yeager was a
teenager, a plane made an emergency landing near his house.
Although Chuck dashed over to look at the aircraft, he was
unmoved by the experience.
When Yeager entered the Army
Air Forces, he seemed unlikely to become one of history's
legendary pilots. But, in the summer of 1942, he began
showing an interest in becoming an aviator, thanks to the
Air Forces "Flying Sergeant Program," which trained enlisted
men to fly. Yeager enrolled in the program because he wanted
a change of pace, not to mention a promotion and a pay
Yeager, fighter pilot.
earned his wings in early 1943. After a brief assignment
stateside, he transferred to England and began working with
the 363rd Fighter Squadron. In early 1944, on his seventh
mission, Yeager shot down his first enemy plane. However,
his next sortie did not go as well.
On March 5, 1944, his eighth
mission, Yeager had to bail out over occupied France after
his plane took an enemy hit. Despite being wounded, Yeager
still evaded the Germans, with the help of the French
Resistance, and made it into neutral Spain. Soon after, he
returned to England. Although military rules prohibited him
from returning to his unit, he appealed his case all the way
up to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who allowed him to
return to his squadron.
If Eisenhower had any doubts
about his decision, Yeager quickly put them to rest. After
returning to his unit, Yeager shot down five enemy planes in
a single day and became an "ace-in-a-day." Later, he even
downed a German Messerschmitt Me-262 jet while flying his
propeller-driven P-51 Mustang. Throughout his 64 World War
II missions, Yeager scored a total of 11-1/2 victories.
(Pilots were credited with a "half" victory if pilots from
two planes both hit an enemy aircraft.)
In July 1945, Yeager entered a
new phase of his aviation career when he became a
maintenance officer at Wright Field, Ohio, a job that
entailed flight-testing all of the field's different planes.
Due to his growing experience with a wide variety of
aircraft, and his outstanding piloting skills, Yeager caught
the attention of Colonel Albert Boyd, the man in charge of
the Air Force's aircraft testing program. Boyd invited
Yeager to become a test pilot, and the West Virginian
accepted the offer.
In August 1947, Yeager
transferred to Muroc Air Base, California (which would later
become Edwards Air Force Base), the premier proving ground
for the day's most technologically advanced aircraft. Soon
after arriving at Muroc, Yeager received orders to test the
X-1, an experimental aircraft that some believed might
exceed Mach One. On October 14, Yeager flew the X-1, which
he had renamed the Glamorous Glennis in honour of his wife,
faster than the speed of sound. With that flight, he
travelled faster than any human being ever had, a remarkable
feat considering the fact that he had broken several ribs
during a horseback riding accident only a few days before.
Revealing his characteristic sense of humour, Yeager radioed
to one of colleagues: "I'm still wearing my ears and nothing
else fell off, neither."
Yeager and the X-1 research plane that broke the sound
barrier. It can be seen today at the Smithsonian Air Space
Museum in Washington, DC.
next noteworthy flight occurred in 1953 while he was
checking out the X1-A, a longer and more powerful version of
the X-1. On December 12, Yeager piloted the X1-A to Mach
2.4, another record, although a short-lived one. Even though
most of the flight went according to plan, near the end, the
aircraft unexpectedly started spinning out of control and
began rotating on all three axes. In the process, Yeager
smashed his head on the cockpit's canopy. After spinning for
more than 50 seconds, Yeager finally regained control of the
aircraft and landed it safely, a fine example of his
outstanding piloting skills.
In 1954, Yeager left Edwards
and accepted a series of command positions. His first stop
was West Germany where he headed the 417th Fighter Squadron.
Three years later, he returned to California as the
commander of the 1st Fighter Squadron. After graduating from
the Air War College in June 1961, he received a promotion to
full colonel. The following summer he returned to Edwards to
head the new Aerospace Research Pilot School, an institution
that trained several of the Apollo and Space Shuttle
astronauts. And notably, during this period, Yeager
continued to help Jackie Cochran, the well known female
flyer, learn the intricacies of various jets and support her
quest to better several speed records, a mission he had
begun in the early 1950s.
Despite his workload as the
commander of the Aerospace Research Pilot School, Yeager
continued to test most of the experimental planes that came
through Edwards. Although many of his flights went according
to plan, one mission quite literally blew up in his face. In
December 1963, Yeager was testing a Lockheed Starfighter
F-104 when it unexpectedly spun out of control at well over
100,000 feet (30,480 meters). Although Yeager fought to
regain control, he could not and had to eject at about 8,500
feet (2,591 meters). While ejecting, his pilot's seat
smashed into his helmet, tore open his visor, and the flame
from his seat's ejector rocket severely burned him. Although
Yeager parachuted to safety, he required several skin
grafts. The incident undoubtedly helped bolster his tough
and determined reputation.
Yeager returned to military
combat in July 1966 when he assumed command of the 405th
Fighter Wing at Clark Air Base in the Philippines, which
fought in the Vietnam War. During the conflict, Yeager flew
a total of 127 combat missions.
In February 1968, Yeager
entered the final phase of his military career when he began
commanding the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing. The following
year, he received a promotion to brigadier general and
became the vice commander of the 17th Air Force. Yeager had
become one of only a handful of men who had started as an
enlisted man and risen all the way to the rank of an Air
Yeager formally retired from
the Air Force in March 1975. During the 1970s and 1980s, he
received a string of honours. In 1976, he received the
Congressional Medal of Honour for his first supersonic
flight. Then, in 1985, President Ronald Reagan awarded him
the Presidential Medal of Freedom. These two medals are the
highest honours an individual can receive for outstanding
service and achievement. Yeager also obtained several other
prestigious awards during his career, including the 1948
Collier Trophy, and the 1958 Harmon International Trophy, as
well as numerous military citations.
On October 14, 1997, the 50th
anniversary of Yeager's first Mach One flight, Yeager broke
the sound barrier once again, this time in an F-15. That
flight was his last official flight in an Air Force plane.
Yeager, still flying high in the 1990s.
travelled a long and challenging path from his West Virginia
beginnings to becoming one of the world's most famous
aviators. For many people, he exemplifies the true meaning
of the word "hero," not only as a record setter and
pioneering test pilot, but also as a military aviator.