Chuck Yeager Dead at 97

An American hero is gone.

Brigadier General Chuck Yeager, the World War II ace who became the first man to break the sound barrier, has gone to the great beyond.

Washington Post (“Chuck Yeager, test pilot who broke sound barrier, dies at 97“):

Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager, a military test pilot who was the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound and live to tell about it, died Dec. 7. He was 97.

[…]

For his prowess in flight, Gen. Yeager became one of the great American folk heroes of the 1940s and 1950s. A self-described West Virginia hillbilly with a high school education, he said he came “from so far up the holler, they had to pipe daylight to me.” He became one of the greatest aviators of his generation, combining abundant confidence with an innate understanding of engineering mechanics — what an airplane could do under any form of stress.

He first stepped into a cockpit during World War II after joining the Army Air Forces directly out of high school. By the end of the war, he was a fighter ace credited with shooting down at least 12 German planes, including five in one day. Making the military his career, he emerged in the late 1940s as one of the newly created Air Force’s most revered test pilots.

His success in breaking the sound barrier launched America into the supersonic age. While airplanes had long had the power to achieve great speeds, changes in aerodynamic design allowed pilots such as Gen. Yeager to overcome the problems of supersonic air flow as they approached the speed of sound.

He later trained men who would go on to join NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs. Throughout his life, he broke numerous speed and altitude records, including becoming the first person to travel 21/2 times the speed of sound.

New York Times (“Chuck Yeager, Test Pilot Who Broke the Sound Barrier, Is Dead at 97“):

Chuck Yeager, the most famous test pilot of his generation who was the first to break the sound barrier, and, thanks to Tom Wolfe, came to personify the death-defying aviator who possessed the elusive yet unmistakable “right stuff,” died on Monday at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 97.

[…]

His signal achievement came on Oct. 14, 1947, when he climbed out of a B-29 bomber as it ascended over California’s Mojave Desert from what was then known as Muroc Air Force Base, and entered the cockpit of an orange, bullet-shaped, rocket-powered experimental plane attached to the bomb bay.

An Air Force captain at the time, he zoomed off in the plane, a Bell Aircraft X-1, at an altitude of 23,000 feet, and when he reached about 43,000 feet above the desert, history’s first sonic boom reverberated across the floor of the dry lake beds. He had reached a speed of 700 miles an hour, breaking the sound barrier and dispelling the long-held fear that any plane flying at or beyond the speed of sound would be torn apart by shock waves.

“After all the anticipation to achieve this moment, it really was a letdown,” he wrote in his best-selling memoir “Yeager” (1985), a collaboration with Leo Janos. “There should’ve been a bump in the road, something to let you know that you had just punched a nice, clean hole through the sonic barrier. The Ughknown was a poke through Jell-O. Later on, I realized that this mission had to end in a letdown because the real barrier wasn’t in the sky but in our knowledge and experience of supersonic flight.”

Nonetheless, that exploit ranked alongside the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903 and Charles Lindbergh’s solo fight to Paris in 1927 as epic events in the history of aviation. In 1950, General Yeager’s X-1 plane, which he christened Glamorous Glennis, honoring his wife, went on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

Wall Street Journal (“Chuck Yeager, Pioneer of Supersonic Flight, Dies at Age 97“):

Chuck Yeager, a folksy, hard-living daredevil who was the first aviator to break the sound barrier and became a symbol of bravery for generations of test pilots, astronauts and average Americans, died Monday at the age of 97.

[…]

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who became friends with Gen. Yeager, called him a native son who “was larger than life and an inspiration for generations of Americans.”

NPR (“Pilot Chuck Yeager Dies At 97, Had ‘The Right Stuff’ And Then Some“):

One of the world’s most famous aviators has died: Chuck Yeager — best known as the first to break the sound barrier — died at the age of 97.

[…]

Yeager started from humble beginnings in Myra, W.Va., and many people didn’t really learn about him until decades after he broke the sound barrier — all because of a book and popular 1983 movie called The Right Stuff.

He accomplished the feat in a Bell X-1, a wild, high-flying rocket-propelled orange airplane that he nicknamed “Glamorous Glennis,” after his first wife who died in 1990. It was a dangerous quest — one that had killed other pilots in other planes. And the X-1 buffeted like a bucking horse as it approached the speed of sound — Mach 1 — about 700 miles per hour at altitude.

But Yeager was more than a pilot: In several test flights before breaking the sound barrier, he studied his machine, analyzing the way it handled as it went faster and faster. He even lobbied to change one of the plane’s control surfaces so that it could safely exceed Mach 1.

As popularized in The Right Stuff, Yeager broke the sound barrier on October 14, 1947 at Edwards Air Force Base in California. But there were no news broadcasts that day, no newspaper headlines. The aviation feat was kept secret for months. In 2011, Yeager told NPR it never much mattered to him. “I was at the right place at the right time. And duty enters into it. It’s not, you know, you don’t do it for the — to get your damn picture on the front page of the newspaper. You do it because it’s duty. It’s your job.”

Yeager never sought the spotlight, and was always a bit gruff. After his famous flight in the X-1, he continued testing newer, faster and more dangerous aircraft. The X-1A came along six years later and it flew at twice the speed of sound. On December 12, 1953, Chuck Yeager set two more altitude and speed records in the X-1A: 74,700 feet and Mach 2.44.

It’s what happened moments later that cemented his legacy as a top test pilot. The X-1A began spinning viciously and spiraling to earth, dropping 50,000 feet in about a minute. His flight helmet even cracked the canopy, and a scratchy archive recording from the day preserves Yeager’s voice as he wrestles back control of the aircraft: “Oh! Huh! I’m down to 25,000,” he says calmly — if a little breathlessly. “Over Tehachapi. I don’t know if I can get back to base or not.”

Yeager would get back to base. And in this 1985 NPR interview, he said it was really no big deal: “Well, sure, because I’d spun airplanes all my life and that’s exactly what I did. I recovered the X-1A from inverted spin into a normal spin, popped it out of that and came on back and landed. That’s what you’re taught to do.”

He was truly one of a kind. What an amazing life.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, Obituaries
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    Good Speed Gen. Yeager. Among the last from a time when America had heros.

    3
  2. CSK says:

    What do you want to bet that Trump has no idea who Yeager was, or what he accomplished?

    4
  3. @CSK: he invented Yeagermeister. duh.

    11
  4. gVOR08 says:

    There should’ve been a bump in the road, something to let you know that you had just punched a nice, clean hole through the sonic barrier.

    The visual effects they did in the movie to illustrate a “barrier” always bother me, but I guess it made “punching through jello” more dramatic.

  5. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    But Trump doesn’t drink. He only knows hamberders and diet Coke.

    2
  6. EddieInCA says:

    The fact that he survived so many crashes and lived to be 97, while many of his contemporaries didn’t live to see the age of 30 says alot about pure luck.

    If you’ve never seen “The Right Stuff”, with Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager, you should. It’s not only a brilliant film about the space program, the first 3-=45 mins about about what a bunch of badasses the original test fighter pilots were.

    4
  7. Kathy says:

    Like Neil Armstrong, his public career seems to have ended at its zenith.

    How do you top a history-making achievement? John Glenn had a political career after being the first American to orbit the Earth, and yet how many remember him for that? He even ran for president in the 84 primaries, if I recall correctly.

    1
  8. JohnMcC says:

    He was shot down over France. Parachuted into the hands of the Resistance who guided him over the Pyrenees. This put him into a category of pilots no longer allowed to fly over Occupied Territory because if he were recaptured he would have the information to roll up the Resistance. His campaign to get back into the fight took him all the way to Eisenhower’s office. Of course, he did get back. Became one of the few to shoot down a Me262.

    1
  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    There’s a nice moment in the film when Sam Sheppard as Yeager appears out of the smoke of a very bad landing. Not able to see him clearly, someone asks, “Is that a man?” To which Jack Ridley, his fellow pilot and engineer replies, “You damn right is is.”

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  10. Jim Brown 32 says:

    RIP Brig Gen Yeagar. Fly, Fight, Win–Go Air Force.

    1
  11. Richard Gardner says:

    NPR today had a repeat of his 1985 interview with Terry Gross (Um, she “joined” NPR in 1971, no idea). Before safety became paramount.

  12. de stijl says:

    Hey, Ridley. Ya got any Beeman’s?

    Levon Helm as Narrator was awesome.

    Top 5 movie of my lifetime. Prolly #2.