Chuck Yeager, U.S. Pilot Who Broke the Sound Barrier, Dies at 97

Chuck Yeager, the World War II fighter ace who became the first human to fly faster than the speed of sound, epitomizing the derring-do that Tom Wolfe celebrated as “The Right Stuff,” has died. He was 97.

His wife, Victoria Yeager, announced Yeager’s death in a post on his verified Twitter account, saying his was an “incredible life well lived” and that his “legacy of strength, adventure, and patriotism will be remembered forever.”

Chuck Yeager, U.S. Pilot Who Broke the Sound Barrier, Dies at 97

Yeager “challenged each of us to test the limits of what’s possible,” said Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat and former governor of the state where Yeager was born.

Considered the greatest test pilot ever by many contemporaries, Yeager said he never had interest in becoming an astronaut, a role he mocked as “little more than Spam in the can.” Still, he trained and inspired many fellow U.S. test pilots who pioneered space exploration.

Yeager’s 20/10 vision enabled him to “see forever,” in the words of fellow flier Clarence “Bud” Anderson. He began building his legend in World War II when he downed five German planes in one day. He sealed his place in history in 1947, at 24, when he became the first person to fly at supersonic speed.

The attempt to break the ominously named “sound barrier” was carried out with Cold War secrecy and intensity because of its implications for air combat. The U.S. Air Force had chosen Yeager to pilot the experimental Bell X-1 rocket ship at Muroc Lake, in California’s Mojave Desert, now Edwards Air Force Base.

The plan was to push closer and closer to the speed of sound -- Mach 1, or roughly 665 mph (1,070 kph) at the cruising altitude of today’s passenger planes -- over the course of numerous tests. The gradual approach was deemed necessary to study the shock waves that caused extreme turbulence as a vehicle approached supersonic speed.

Impatient Pilot

Yeager arrived for his ninth flight on Oct. 14, 1947, in pain from two broken ribs suffered during a nighttime horseback ride. Already impatient with the program’s pace, he declined to disclose his discomfort to his superiors.

Chuck Yeager, U.S. Pilot Who Broke the Sound Barrier, Dies at 97

“I suppose there were advantages in creeping up on Mach 1,” Yeager recalled in his 1985 memoir, “but my vote was to stop screwing around before we had some stupid accident that could cost us not only a mission, but the entire project.”

The flight plan that day called for the X-1 -- named Glamorous Glennis, after Yeager’s wife at the time -- to reach 0.97 Mach.

At 20,000 feet, it detached from the B-29 bomber that had carried it into the sky. Yeager activated rocket boosters that propelled the ship to 42,000 feet (12,800 meters). With 30% of his fuel still remaining, he activated another booster to reach 0.96 Mach, employing a recently devised technique -- adjusting a horizontal stabilizer on the ship’s tail -- to counter the shock wave building up there.

Sonic Boom

“I noticed that the faster I got, the smoother the ride,” he said. “Suddenly the Mach needle began to fluctuate. It went up to 0.965 Mach -- then tipped right off the scale. I thought I was seeing things!”

Measurements showed he had reached Mach 1.06, about 700 mph. The sonic boom that accompanied the breakthrough notified the crew on the ground that Yeager had made history.

“I was thunderstruck,” he wrote. “After all the anxiety, breaking the sound barrier turned out to be a perfectly paved speedway.”

U.S. officials withheld official confirmation of the accomplishment for more than half a year. “Speed of Sound Is Exceeded by XS-1 in Repeated Tests,” the New York Times reported on June 1, 1948, identifying the pilot as “a wartime ace, Capt. Charles E. Yeager.” By then, four other test pilots had joined the supersonic club.

Fearless Flyboys

Yeager’s celebrity blossomed thanks to “The Right Stuff,” the 1979 book by Tom Wolfe about the fearless flyboys who began the U.S. space program. Wolfe said Yeager’s folksy, calm West Virginia drawl had become the standard for U.S. airline pilots, whether announcing a delayed takeoff or an emergency landing. Actor Sam Shepard played Yeager in the 1983 movie.

Famously brusque, Yeager didn’t buy into the idea that some people are born with the “Right Stuff.”

“I was born with unusually good eyes and coordination,” Yeager wrote in his best-seller. “I was mechanically oriented, understood machines easily. My nature was to stay cool in tight spots. Is that ‘the right stuff’?”

With Yeager, the U.S. Air Force pushed speeds ever higher. On Dec. 12, 1953, he piloted the Bell X-1A to Mach 2.44 -- about 1,650 mph at 75,000 feet -- just weeks after another test pilot, A. Scott Crossfield, had become the first person to achieve Mach 2.

Yeager almost didn’t survive that record. At Mach 2.44, the aircraft went into two violent rolls that left him disoriented, and his helmet left a crack in the canopy’s inch-thick glass. He plummeted 51,000 feet in 51 seconds. Regaining his senses, he brought the craft in for a landing.

‘Walked Away’

“I don’t know of another pilot who could’ve walked away from that one,” recalled Albert Boyd, head of Air Force flight testing.

Charles Elwood Yeager was born on Feb. 13, 1923, in Myra, West Virginia, the second of five children of Albert Yeager, a natural-gas driller, and his wife Susie Mae.

Growing up in nearby Hamlin, population 400, Yeager was more interested in hunting and fishing than in academics. From his father, he learned auto-mechanic skills that he would later apply to aircraft.

After graduating high school in 1941, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps -- the forerunner to the Air Force -- and was a mechanic when he was selected for pilot training in July 1942.

In March 1944, on his eighth combat mission, escorting bombers that took off from southern England, Yeager was shot down over German-occupied France. Members of the underground French resistance helped him cross the Pyrenees into Spain.

Ike’s Exemption

Back in England, Yeager challenged a policy that called for American pilots to be removed from combat after gaining information about resistance groups that they could be forced to divulge if captured again. His appeal went all the way to General Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander in Europe, who granted him an exemption.

Months later, on Oct. 12, 1944, Yeager downed five German Messerschmitt fighters. “Flier Bags 5 Nazi Planes to Vindicate Ike’s Ruling,” read the headline in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. Yeager shot down four more German planes on Nov. 20.

Overall, Yeager flew 64 combat missions during the war, earning a promotion to captain.

Back in the U.S., Yeager was picked for the rigorous test-pilot program. Boyd, the flight testing chief, then selected him from 125 candidates to lead the assault on Mach 1.

“We had several other outstanding pilots to choose from, but none of them could quite match his skill in a cockpit or his coolness under pressure,” Boyd said in an interview excerpted in Yeager’s book.

‘Golden Age’

After breaking the sound barrier, Yeager continued as a test pilot during what he called “the golden age of flying and fun,” from 1947 to 1954.

He went on to command the 417th Fighter Bomber Squadron in Europe and the Air Force’s Aerospace Research Pilot School, which would train more than 25 astronauts who participated in the Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs.

In 1963, flying the experimental Lockheed Starfighter at more than twice the speed of sound, Yeager lost control and had to eject moments before the plane crashed. He suffered severe burns on his face and fingers from flames caused by the rocket charge that propelled his ejection seat.

He took command of the 405th Fighter Wing at Clark Air Base in the Philippines in 1966, during the Vietnam War. He retired in 1975 as a brigadier general. Congress awarded him a Medal of Honor in 1976.

Over the next 25 years he was a consultant to the Air Force and supported aviation education through a charitable foundation. He served on the presidential commission that investigated the 1986 explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

He had four children -- daughters Susan and Sharon, sons Donald and Michael -- with the former Glennis Dickhouse, whom he married in 1945. She died in 1990. In 2003 he married the former Victoria Scott D’Angelo.

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