Chuck Yeager, the First Man to Break the Sound Barrier has Died. He was 97

On Dec.7th, 2020, World War II flying ace and legendary test pilot General Chuck Yeager passed away while in hospital in Los Angeles. He was 97 years of age and is survived by his second wife, Victoria Yeager (nee Victoria Scott D’Angelo), and his three children, Susan, Don, and Sharon. Yeager was interred at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

In addition to his family, Yeager also leaves behind a legacy that is virtually unparalleled in the history of flight, comparable only to men like Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin. He is perhaps best known for being the first man to break the sound barrier, as well as the first pilot to travel over twice the speed of sound (Mach 2).

In fact, this past Oct. 14th was the seventy-third anniversary of Yeager’s historic flight with the Bell XS-1. However, Yeager’s accomplishments go far beyond what he achieved as a test pilot and pioneer aviator. Chuck Yeager was born Charles Elwood Yeager in 1923 in West Virginia, to farming parents Susie Mae and Albert Hal Yeager. In 1941, he graduated high school and began his military service with the US Army Air Forces (USAAF).

A Bell XS-1 (tail no. 6062), piloted by USAF Capt. Chuck Yeager, exceeded the speed of sound in history’s first supersonic flight. Credit: NASA

USAF Service

Yeager enlisted as a private in the USAAF on Sept. 12th, 1941, and became an aircraft mechanic at George Air Force Base, in Victorville, California. A few months later, the US entered World War II, and Yeager became eligible for flight training. After much training to become a fighter pilot, Yeager was shipped with the 357th Fighter Group to the UK in November of 1943.

While stationed at RAF Leiston, Yeager and his fighter wing flew P-51 Mustangs in sorties against the German Air Force (the Luftwaffe). Yeager shot down one fighter before being shot down himself on his either sortie over France. With the help of the French Resistance (the Maquis), he was smuggled through Spain and returned to England about two months later.

Then, on Oct. 12th, 1944, Yeager became a fighter ace after shooting down five enemy fighters in a single day. It happened during a bombing raid on Bremen, where Yeager was leading the 363rd Squadron as part of the bombers’ escort. While other squadrons remained close, the 363rd flew 80 to 160 km (50 to 100 mi) ahead to intercept any German fighters.

According to Yeager’s after action report, the engagement began while he and his squad were flying at an altitude of about 7600 meters (25,000 ft) over Steinhuder Lake – about 50 km (30 mi) southeast of Bremen. It was here that Yeager spotted twenty-two Messerschmidt 109s crossing in front of his squadron at a distance of about 2.4 km (1.5 mi). Yeager and his squad fell in behind the enemy formation and followed them for a few minutes.

P-51 Mustangs flying in formation over Europe. Credit:

After dropping his external fuel tanks, Yeager moved into firing position and was the only pilot in his squad who was in range. One of the German pilots panicked and broke to the right and collided with another. According to Yeager’s after action report, both pilots bailed out. Yeager then opened fire on the first, causing it to burst into flames as it fell.

Yeager then pulled up on a second Me. 109 and fired a burst into its path, causing it to explode in midair. The last Me. 109 cut its throttle and tried to pull behind, but Yeager rolled his plane and made a hard turn to get back on the fighter’s rear. He shot up the wings and tail of this Me. 109 and the pilot was forced to bail out after losing control.

In his after-action report, Yeager claimed five kills and reported firing off 587 rounds of his Mustang’s .50 cal ammunition. He also attributed much of his success to the ‘G’ suit (which kept him from blacking out) and the Mustang’s K-14 gun sight. The encounter made Yeager the first in his group to become an “ace in a day.”

By war’s end, Yeager had achieved the rank of Captain and was credited with 11.5 official victories, including one Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter which he shot down as it was attempting to land. On February 26th, 1945, Yeager married his first wife, Glennis Dickhouse, and the couple would have four children.

“Fastest Man Alive”

After the war, Yeager remained with the USAAF as a test pilot. By 1947, he was selected to fly the Bell XS-1 as part of the program for high-speed flight conducted by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics‘ (NACA) – the precursor to NASA. On Oct. 14th, 1947, Yeager broke the sound barrier while flying the X-1, which he named “Glamorous Glennis” (after his first wife).

During the Korean War (1950 – 1953), he returned to active military service, and resumed test piloting after the conclusion of hostilities. On Nov. 20th, 1953, U.S. Navy pilot Scott Crossfield became the first aviator to reach twice the speed of sound (Mach 2) using the D-558-II Skyrocket transonic research airplane. Yeager and fellow pilot Jack Ridley decided to reclaim the record for fastest speed ever achieved.

On Dec. 12th, 1953, Yeager set a new record by reaching Mach 2.44 in his aircraft as part of a series of test flights dubbed “Operation NACA Weep.” He nearly died in the process when he temporarily lost control of the aircraft at 24,000 m (80,000 ft) and dropped for 16,000 m (51,000 ft). Nevertheless, Yeager managed to regain control of the aircraft and brought it in for a safe landing.

This latest record-breaking flight happened just in time for the 50th anniversary of flight, where he beat Crossfield to be named the “fastest man alive.” For this achievement, Yeager was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 1954.

The D-558-II Skyrocket. Credit: NASA

Later Career

Between 1954 and his retirement in 1975, Yeager commanded fighter and bomber squadrons in West Germany, France, Spain, the Philippines and Pakistan, and reached the rank of Colonel. After completing his studies at the Air War College in 1962, he became the first commandant of the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School, which trained astronauts for NASA and the USAF.

In April 1962, Yeager flew with Neil Armstrong in a T-33 Shooting Star, a jet trainer aircraft. Between 1963 and 1964, Yeager also completed five test flights in the NASA M2-F1 prototype, an unpowered lifting body designed to test a wingless concept. On Dec. 10th, 1963, Yeager was nearly killed while flight-testing the new NF-104A supersonic trainer.

After suffering a malfunction at 33,130 m (108,700 ft), the aircraft lost power and began to plummet rapidly. Yeager was unable to regain control and was forced to bail out at m ~2,600 (8,500 ft). This incident, where Yeager became the first pilot to bail out in a full pressure suit (which are needed for such high-altitude flights), put an end to his record attempts.

Between 1966 and 1968, Yeager would be put back into combat service when he was given command of the 405th Tactical Fighter Wing at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. It was here that he and his pilots would fly countless sorties over South Vietnam and Southeast Asia. In July of 1969, Yeager was promoted to the rank of brigadier general and no longer flew combat missions.

Lockheed NF-104A, climbing with the help of its rocket motor. Credit: USAF

For the next two years, he served as vice-commander to the Seventeenth Expeditionary Air Force (17 EAF) at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. From 1971 to 1973, Yeager was stationed in Pakistan as an advisor to the Pakistan Air Force and an assistant to the US’ diplomat. While there, he bore witness to the 1971 conflict between Pakistan and India and even saw his plane destroyed in an air raid.

In 1973, Yeager was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, which is the highest honor that can be bestowed upon an aviator.

Retirement and Final Years

In 1975, Yeager retired from the USAF and he and his wife Glennis moved to Grass Valley, California. The couple lived off income from Yeager’s best selling autobiography, speaking engagements, and commercial ventures. Throughout the 1980s, Yeager was a spokesperson for General Motors, drove pace cars for the Indie 500, and as a technical adviser to Electronic Arts (which released a series of flight simulators).

In 1983, his contributions to the American space program (and those of the Mercury Seven) were immortalized in the film The Right Stuff. Yeager made a cameo appearance in the film, playing the Fred bartender of “Pancho’s Place,” where Yeager spent much of his downtime while stationed at Edwards AFB. In 1986, President Reagan appointed him to the Rogers Commission, which investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion.

Retired Brig. Gen. Robert Cardenas speaks at the 70th Anniversary of Supersonic Flight held on Oct. 13, 2017. Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager and wife Victoria. Credit: Edwards AFB/USAF

In 1990, Glennis Yeager died of ovarian cancer. In 2011, Yeager’s son Mickey died unexpectedly in Oregon. On Oct. 14th, 1997, on the 50th anniversary of his historic flight, Yeager flew an F-15D Eagle named Glamorous Glennis III past Mach 1. The chase plane (an F-16) was piloted by Bob Hoover, the man who was Yeager’s wingman for his first supersonic flight.

In 2000, Yeager met actress Victoria Scott D’Angelo (his second wife) while hiking in Nevada. The two married in 2003 (which didn’t go over so well with Yeager’s children) and lived together in northern California. On the 65th anniversary (Oct. 14th, 2012), Yeager flew again, this time as the co-pilot aboard an F-15.

On Dec. 7th, 2020, which coincided with National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day (and the 79th anniversary of the attack), Yeager died in a Los Angeles hospital. News of his passing was shared by his wife via Chuck Yeager’s Twitter account:

“Fr @VictoriaYeage11 It is w/ profound sorrow, I must tell you that my life love General Chuck Yeager passed just before 9pm ET. An incredible life well lived, America’s greatest Pilot, & a legacy of strength, adventure, & patriotism will be remembered forever.”

In an official statement, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the following on the passing of Gen. Chuck Yeager:

“Today’s passing of Gen. Chuck Yeager is a tremendous loss to our nation. Gen. Yeager’s pioneering and innovative spirit advanced America’s abilities in the sky and set our nation’s dreams soaring into the jet age and the space age. He said, ‘You don’t concentrate on risks. You concentrate on results. No risk is too great to prevent the necessary job from getting done.’

“Among many firsts in more than 60 years in aviation, Chuck was the first man to fly at the speed of sound, and his achievements rival any of our greatest firsts in space. Not content to rest on his laurels, he went on to break his own record and travel at Mach 2.44. But even before that he was serving his country heroically in World War II. Long after he became a legend in his own time, he continued to serve his country through the military and later in his ongoing work to test new aircraft.

“Chuck’s bravery and accomplishments are a testament to the enduring strength that made him a true American original, and NASA’s Aeronautics work owes much to his brilliant contributions to aerospace science. As a young naval aviator, I was one of many around the world who looked up to Chuck Yeager and his amazing feats as a test pilot. His path blazed a trail for anyone who wanted to push the limits of human potential, and his achievements will guide us for generations to come.”

Legacy and Honors

For his accomplishments, Yeager has received countless honors, awards, and citations. For his achievement of breaking the sound barrier, Yeager was awarded the National Aeronautics Association’s (NAA) Mackay Trophy and Collier Trophy in 1948 and the Harmon International Trophy in 1954. The X-1 Glamorous Glennis is now on permanent display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

General Yeager honoring the 50th anniversary of his first supersonic flight at Edwards Air Force Base in 1997. Credit: Edwards AFB/USAF/AAoA

Between 1966 and 1981, Yeager was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame, the National Aviation Hall of Fame (the highest honor that can be bestowed on an aviator), and the International Space Hall of Fame. In 1974, Yeager also received the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement and was inducted into the 1990 Aerospace Walk of Honor inaugural class.

In 1976, Yeager was awarded the Special Congressional Silver Medal for “contributing immeasurably to aerospace science by risking his life in piloting the X-1 research airplane faster than the speed of sound on Oct. 14th, 1947.” This medal, which is the equivalent of the noncombat Medal of Honor, was presented to Yeager by then-president Gerald Ford during a ceremony at the White House on Dec. 8th, 1976.

Marshall University, located in Yeager’s home state of West Virgina, named its highest academic scholarship in his honor – the Society of Yeager Scholars. Charleston, West Virginia, honored him by remaining their airport and the insterstate bridge of the Kanawha River the Yeager Airport and Chuck E. Yeager Bridge. Part of US Highway 119 in his home county was renamed the Yeager Highway.

Yeager has also been ranked by Flying Magazine, the California Hall of Fame, the State of West Virginia, the National Aviation Hall of Fame, the United States Army Air Force, and a few US Presidents as being one of the greatest pilots of all time. Though modest about his background and achievements, Yeager was a giant to pilots, astronauts, and everyday people alike. He will be missed!

RIP Charles Elwood “Chuck” Yeager!

Further Reading: Chuck Yeager.com, USAF, Edwards AFB, NASA

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