On the evening of December 7, 2020, Gen. Chuck Yeager passed away in Los Angeles, California. Gen. Yeager is best known as the first person to break the sound barrier on October 14, 1947. In addition to this feat, Yeager was a WWII fighter ace and accomplished test pilot.
Born on February 13, 1923 in Myra, West Virginia, Yeager enlisted as an aircraft mechanic in the U.S. Army Air Forces on September 12, 1941. Although he was not initially eligible for flight training due to his age and educational background, these standards were quickly relaxed following America’s entry into WWII. On March 10, 1943, Yeager earned his wings and was promoted to flight officer at Luke Field, Arizona. Initially trained on the Bell P-39 Aircobra, Yeager would fly the North American P-51 Mustang in combat.
Yeager was stationed at RAF Leiston in the UK and assigned to the 363d Fighter Squadron. He named his aircraft Glamorous Glen after his girlfriend, Glennis Faye Dickhouse, whom he married in February 1945. During the war, he flew 64 missions and is credited with at least 11 aerial kills. He scored five of these kills in one mission, making him the first pilot in his group to become an “ace in a day.” Yeager also scored one of the first kills on a jet fighter when he shot down a Messerschmitt Me 262 in his P-51. He finished out the war as a Captain.
Following the war, Yeager was assigned as a test pilot at Muroc Army Air Field, now Edwards Air Force Base, in Southern California. In 1947, he was selected to pilot the rocket-powered Bell X-1 aircraft in a bid to break the sound barrier. Two days before the flight was scheduled, Yeager broke two ribs when he fell off of a horse. Fearful that a military doctor would pull him from the flight, he sought treatment from a civilian doctor who taped his ribs up. To keep his secret, Yeager told only his wife and friend and fellow test pilot, Jack Ridley. On the day of the flight, Yeager was in so much pain that he couldn’t shut the X-1’s hatch by himself. Ridley rigged a device using a broom handle to give Yeager extra leverage and shut the hatch on his own.
On October 14, 1947, Yeager flew the Bell X-1 Glamorous Glennis at Mach 1.05 over Rogers Dry Lake in the Mojave Desert and became the first person to break the sound barrier. Following this achievement, Yeager went on to break more speed and altitude records. He was also one of the first American pilots to fly the MiG-15 jet fighter. In addition to his career as a test pilot, Yeager continued to fly as a fighter pilot. He held several squadron and wing commands in Europe and Asia during his military career. Yeager retired from the Air Force on March 1, 1975 as a Brigadier General.
Yeager remained connected to aviation during his retirement. He flew for both the Air Force and NASA as a test pilot. He also made a cameo appearance in the 1983 film The Right Stuff. In 1986, President Reagan appointed Yeager as part of the investigation into Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he set numerous light aircraft records for speed, range, and endurance.
Yeager fully retired from military test flying in 1997 after he flew past Mach 1 in an F-15D Eagle named Glamorous Glennis III on the 50th anniversary of his breaking of the sound barrier. Although the flight was meant to be his last, he continued flying with the Air Force until 2012 when he flew as a co-pilot in another F-15 past Mach 1 on the 65th anniversary of his record-breaking flight. In total, Gen. Yeager flew 201 different types of aircraft and accumulated over 14,000 flight hours.
For his achievements and valor, Yeager earned a Bronze Star with “V” Device, a Distinguished Flying Cross with two bronze oak leaf clusters, a Silver Star with bronze oak leaf cluster, the Congressional Silver Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has also been inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame, the International Space Hall of Fame, the National Aviation Hall of Fame, and the California Hall of Fame. Gen. Yeager’s decades of service and commitment to excellence in aviation will inspire future aviators for generations to come.