Chris Petty is a space and aviation enthusiast and author of Beyond Blue Skies: The Rocket Plane Programs That Led to the Space Age as well as The High Frontier blog. His articles have appeared on Adam Savage’s Tested site and the Space Review. Chuck Yeager, an Air Force general and test pilot, made history by breaking the sound barrier in an airplane for the first time on October 14, 1947. Yeager passed away on Monday, December 7, 2020 at the age of 97.
A sign bearing the legend “Through these portals pass the oldest and boldest pilots in the world” hangs at the door of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards AFB, California. This month we lost a man whose life truly embodied that statement, for no pilot has been more closely associated with bold achievements in the skies above Rogers Dry Lake than Brigadier General Charles E. Yeager.
Born February 1923, Yeager’s early years in rural West Virginia were a far cry from the exploits that were to follow. Like so many of his generation, the Second World War led the young ‘Chuck’ away from the hollers of his home state as he enlisted in the US Army Air Forces (USAAF) in September 1941. Originally joining as a mechanic due to his age, America’s entry into the war following the Japanese attack on Pearly Harbor soon offered the young Yeager a route into the cockpit and he never looked back.
Towards the end of 1943 he headed to the airfields of Eastern England to fly fighter escort for the huge formations of bombers setting out over occupied Europe to pummel the German industrial heartlands. Flying a P-51 Mustang, christened Glamorous Glen in tribute to his sweetheart and later wife Glennis, Yeager was downed over France after only eight missions but managed to evade capture with the assistance of the Maquis, before traversing the Pyrenees and making it back into allied hands. Although pilots who had encountered resistance fighters were prohibited from returning to combat lest they betray secrets under torture if captured again, Yeager wasn’t about to sit idly by as the liberation of Europe approached, taking his case directly to the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. The West Virginian’s persistence eventually paid off as Eisenhower relented, allowing Yeager to resume combat duties following the D-Day invasion.
Once back in the skies, Yeager wasted no time in adding to his tally, becoming an ‘ace in a day’ by downing five German aircraft in a single sortie on October 12, 1944. Before his war was done he also became one of the first allied pilots to down a jet aircraft, shooting down a Messerschmitt Me 262 as it attempted to land.
Following the War, Yeager decided to stay with the USAAF, where he caught the eye of Colonel Albert Boyd, chief of the Flight Test Division at Wright Field, Ohio. Impressed by Yeager’s willingness to fly any aircraft available to him and the young aviator’s natural skill as a ‘stick’n’rudder’ man, Boyd put the former wartime fighter pilot through the USAAF’s test pilot’s school.
This was a fortuitous time for the test pilots of Wright Field, as during the wartime years the USAAF commander General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold had decided it was high time that his forces reduced their reliance on external bodies such as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) for experimental research and build up its own internal technical capabilities. One of the major challenges facing aviation during this period was compressibility, a condition that saw an aircraft’s control surfaces became ineffective or in the worst cases disintegrate as it approached the speed of sound. Cooperation between the USAAF, the NACA and the Navy led to a decision to investigate the dynamics of high-speed flight using a free flying laboratory—a piloted research aircraft. The USAAF sponsored solution to this requirement was a small straight winged, bullet-shaped vehicle designed and built by Bell Aircraft and named the Experimental Sonic -1 or XS-1, and it was in this aircraft that Chuck Yeager would write his own page of the history books in October 1947.
When the USAAF decided during the summer of that year, that the task of pushing on to Mach 1 and beyond should fall to its own test pilots rather than their civilian equivalents who had conducted earlier test phases, Boyd selected Chuck Yeager to fill the pilot’s seat. As part of a handpicked team including back up pilot Bob Hoover, project engineer Jack Ridley and B-29 mothership pilot Bob Cardenas, Yeager would conduct a short series of flights to take the orange rocket plane through the fabled sound barrier and carry American aviation into the supersonic age. Once deployed to the spartan Muroc Field out on the edge of Rogers Dry Lake in the Californian High Desert, the team wasted no time in pushing on towards their ultimate goal, often applying their own best judgement as to how to achieve this.
Muroc was a rough and ready facility at this time, lending the whole enterprise something of a frontier feel. There were tensions between NACA engineers and the USAAF team, with some considering Yeager a wild man willing to take too many risks, an attitude that fostered a resentment towards the NACA (and its successor, NASA) that Yeager carried for the rest of his career. Having pushed the XS-1 through Mach 1 and into the history books. Yeager had to wait before his name and achievements became common knowledge, but during 1948, details were gradually disclosed and the daring test pilot had his first taste of celebrity as the fastest man alive.
In the years that followed Chuck Yeager carved out a highly successful career as a test pilot in the skies above the western Mojave Desert as the recently formed United States Air Force (USAF) pushed on into the jet age. With its huge lakebed runways and clear skies, Edwards AFB (as Muroc was renamed in 1949 in tribute to Capt. Glen Edwards) became central to air force flight test activities, but these were risky times as the demand for faster, higher flying aircraft pushed engineering to its very limits. As the quest for higher speeds continued, Yeager was again called upon to take the controls of a Bell rocket plane as the air force sought to push on beyond Mach 2. Although the NACA reached this milestone first when Scott Crossfield took the navy-sponsored Douglas D-558-II to Mach 2.005 on November 20, 1953, Yeager and Ridley were determined to wrestle the record back into air force hands before the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of the Wright Brother’s historic first flight at Kittyhawk. In doing so they chose to ignore the advice of both Bell and NACA engineers who had advised that their aircraft, the Bell X-1A, would likely go out of control beyond Mach 2.3. On December 12, Yeager took to the air for what he and Ridley had come to call ‘Operation NACA Weep’ and after dropping away from the mothership the test pilot was soon speeding beyond Crossfield’s recent record mark.
Rather than settle for a small incremental improvement Yeager chose to press on but, having exceeded his planned altitude, he soon found out that the Bell and NACA engineers had been correct—a fact that almost cost him his life. At Mach 2.44 the X-1A went out of control, gyrating wildly as it tumbled down through the desert skies. Yeager was thrown about with such force that his helmet shattered the cockpit canopy, but with no ejection seat had no option but to ride it out hoping that the aircraft remained in one piece until he could regain control, which he managed to do as he neared the Tehachapi range to the north of the dry lake. Yeager was heard to declare that he was in bad shape but couldn’t talk as he had to save himself, but he soon had the rocket plane safely back on the lake bed—a recovery that even Scott Crossfield conceded that few other pilots could have managed.
Following successful tours as a squadron commander in Europe and a stint at the USAF’s Air War College, Yeager returned to Edwards as commandant of the newly formed Aerospace Research Pilots School (ARPS) in the early sixties, helping train a new generation of test pilots to deal with the demands of spaceflight as well as more conventional flying. Formed with the aim of turning out astronauts for the air force’s own planned spaceflight programs, cancellation of both the such Dyna-Soar and Manned Orbiting Laboratory programs saw many of the school’s graduates move across to NASA, often to Yeager’s chagrin.
A 1963 attempt at a Soviet held absolute altitude record in one of the school’s NF-104A aerospace training aircraft—a rocket enhanced high altitude version of Lockheed’s famed Starfighter – led to controversy, with Yeager failing to heed the advice of the program pilot and entering an unrecoverable flat spin. Following ejection, the pilot was struck by the ejection seat’s rocket causing severe facial burns. Although he went on to make a full recovery, the incident pointed to the changes that had taken place since Yeager had first arrived at Muroc. Test pilots were now expected to be highly qualified engineers, capable of devising and flying complex profiles both in and outside the atmosphere. Yeager would never touch the speeds and altitudes many of his contemporaries were soon achieving in the hypersonic X-15, or NASA’s orbital capsules, but his name remained legendary in experimental test piloting circles.
Wider recognition came with the publication of Tom Wolfe’s bestseller The Right Stuff in 1979. In the book, Wolfe contrasts the exploits of Yeager and his contemporaries out at Edwards with those of America’s first astronauts, the Mercury 7. Yeager was a key source for Wolfe, and the author’s style helped lend a mythical quality to many of the pilot’s achievements—the true possessor of the ‘right stuff’, a quality borne of bravery, aptitude and no small amount of self-belief, highly prized amongst test pilots.
Yeager subsequently became a revered figure, representing a no-nonsense, can-do image of American achievement. Philip Kaufman’s 1983 movie adaptation of Wolfe’s book garnered numerous Oscar nominations, including Sam Shepard for his memorable turn as Yeager. Unfortunately, as rousing as the film was it lacked a great deal in historical accuracy, but the legend of Yeager was now cemented in the public conscience. Various commercial endorsements followed for the now retired Yeager, who remained a regular fixture at air shows and aviation gatherings during the decades that followed.
In 1985 he put his own story in print with a highly-readable eponymous autobiography, co-authored with Leo Janos. In this book, Yeager sought to present his side of the story as well as settle numerous scores from across his career. Many across the years have felt the wrath of Yeager’s disapproval as he remained forthright and uncompromising in his views, but none of this should detract from his achievements in the air. He was always quick to extoll the opportunities a life in service of his country afforded him, and he repaid this in full through his dedication to the air force well past his retirement as a Brigadier General. In a military career spanning more than thirty years, Yeager earned numerous awards and decorations including both Army and Air Force Distinguished Service Medals, the Silver Star (twice) and the Distinguished Flying Cross (three times), but perhaps no award will remain quite as closely associated with him as Wolfe’s bestowal of the title ‘the keeper of the right stuff’ for that historic flight in the fall of 1947.
To many, Chuck Yeager will simply remain Mr. Supersonic.
Charles Elwood Yeager. February 13, 1923 – December 7, 2020