“I have flown in just about everything, with all kinds of pilots in all parts of the world — British, French, Pakistani, Iranian, Japanese, Chinese — and there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between any of them except for one unchanging, certain fact … the best, most skillful pilot has the most experience.” — Chuck Yeager
Some said he my have been the greatest pilot of all time, others disliked him, thought him arrogant, or took offense against his fame.
Nevertheless, his exploits in World War II and as a test pilot, would become legendary.
Chuck Yeager, known as “the fastest man alive,” has died at the age of 97, CNN reported.
Yeager broke the sound barrier when he tested the X-1 in October 1947, although the feat was not announced to the public until 1948.
His second wife, Victoria, confirmed Monday night that Yeager had passed after she tweeted from Yeager’s verified Twitter account that the flying ace had died.
“An incredible life well lived, America’s greatest pilot,” she tweeted.
His legacy captured later generations as well, being featured in the book and 1983 film, “The Right Stuff.”
Yeager’s accomplishment stands alongside that of the Wright Brothers and Charles Lindbergh in the history of American aviation, setting the US on a path that was to lead to Neil Armstrong’s 1969 moon landing, The Guardian reported.
On the evening of Sunday 12 October 1947, Yeager, a 24-year-old US air force test pilot based at Muroc army air field in California, dined with his wife, Glennis, at Pancho’s bar and restaurant in the Mojave desert.
Then the couple went horse-riding, but it was a moonless night and, racing against his wife, Yeager hit a gate, knocked himself out, and cracked two ribs. The pain took his breath away.
Two days later, Yeager was scheduled to fly the rocket-powered, orange-painted Bell X-1 plane nicknamed “Glamorous Glennis,” to Mach .97, just below Mach 1, the speed of sound.
This was the sound barrier, which no aviator had crossed and lived to tell the tale. The British test pilot Geoffrey de Havilland had died 13 months earlier, when, close to the sound barrier, his DH108 jet disintegrated over the Thames, The Guardian reported.
Yeager told the project engineer Jack Ridley about the injury, which, crucially, prevented him from using his right hand to secure the X-1 hatch. Ridley sawed 10 inches off a broomstick and wedged it in the lock, so that Yeager would be able to operate it with his left hand.
That Tuesday morning, Yeager, inside the Glamorous Glennis, was dropped from the bomb-bay of a Boeing B29 Superfortress at 20,000ft, and took the X-1 to 42,000ft.
The machmeter swung off the scale, a sonic boom rolled over the Mojave and, at Mach 1.05, 700 mph, Yeager, in level flight, broke the sound barrier.
It was not until 10 June 1948 that the US finally announced its success, but Yeager was already soaring towards myth, The Guardian reported.
The legend grew, culminating with secular canonization in Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff (1979), a romance on the birth of the US space program, on Yeager himself, and even on Pancho’s (and its foul-mouthed female proprietor, Florence “Pancho” Barnes). A movie of the same name followed in 1983, with Sam Shepard as Yeager.
It concluded with Yeager, 16 years on from his exploits in Harry Truman’s America, in the 1963 of JFK’s new frontier.
Having taken his Lockheed NF-104A rocket-boosted jet to 108,700 ft, more than 20 miles high, and to the edge of space, Yeager, out of control, has to bail out at 14,000 ft and lands, badly burned, back in the Mojave – and out of record attempts.
While falling from the sky, he was slammed in the face by the tube end of his seat which was still burning. The rubber seal around his helmet lit up and the pure oxygen environment around his head ignited, The Huntington Quarterly reported.
The inside of his helmet was a combination of fire and smoke as he struggled to breathe. He somehow managed to rip off his helmet, but in the process badly burned his hand.
His left eye was saved because the layers of blood had shielded it from the fire inside his helmet. However, his face and neck were badly burned and the only way to prevent permanent scarring was to scrape away the scabs every four days – an extremely painful procedure but one that left him almost completely healed.
Yeager was a laconic Appalachian whose education ended with a high-school diploma.
He was, he said in his autobiography Yeager (1985, with Leo Janos), “the guy who broke the sound barrier … the kid who swam the Mud River with a swiped watermelon, or shot the head off a squirrel before breakfast.”
And he was also the guy who got patronized by “officers who looked down their noses at my ways and accent” or pegged him as “dumb” and “down-home,” The Guardian reported.
He had picked up the X-1 job after a civilian test pilot, Slick Goodlin, had asked for $150,000 to attempt to break the sound barrier. Yeager flew for what was then his monthly USAF pay of $283. Yeager had been cheap, sneered some, and thus expendable.
Among some of his most famous quotes:
- “If you can walk away from a landing, it’s a good landing. If you use the airplane the next day, it’s an outstanding landing.”
- “I was always afraid of dying. Always. It was my fear that made me learn everything I could about my airplane and my emergency equipment, and kept me flying respectful of my machine and always alert in the cockpit.”
- “If you want to grow old as a pilot, you’ve got to know when to push it, and when to back off.”
- “I’ve flown 341 types of military planes in every country in the world and logged about 18,000 hours. It might sound funny, but I’ve never owned an airplane in my life. If you’re willing to bleed, Uncle Sam will give you all the planes you want.”
The second of four children of Albert Yeager, a staunchly Republican gas driller, and his wife, Susie Mae (nee Sizemore), Chuck was born in Myra, West Virginia, the Mud River. His Dutch-German family – the surname was an anglicized version of Jäger (hunter) – had settled there in the 1800s.
The young Yeager was a hunter — with superb eyesight — a sportsman, and not much of a scholar, but he did read Jack London. He had no interest in flying but he was good at acquiring practical knowledge — and his high-school graduation in summer 1941 came five months before Pearl Harbor.
He trained as an Army Air Corps mechanic, but by July 1942 he was flight training in California, where he met his wife-to-be, Glennis Dickhouse.
“I barely understood every third word he spoke,” she wrote in Yeager.
“But … I sensed that he was a very strong and determined person, a poor boy who had started with nothing and would show the world what he was really made of. That was the kind of man that I hoped one day to marry.”
Sixteen months later he was a non-commissioned officer with the 363rd Fighter Squadron based at Leiston, Suffolk – “three concrete runways surrounded by a sea of mud” – flying a North American P-51 Mustang.
Yeager would say not everyone was cut out to be a fighter pilot and cruelly, many washed out or died trying. Expressions such as “he augered in” or “he screwed the pooch” would later become part and parcel of the Yeager lexicon.
Training proved to be fun, as well … albeit, on the edge fun.
“You’re whipping through a desert canyon at three hundred miles an hour,” he writes in his autobiography, “your belly just barely scraping the rocks and sagebrush, your hand on the throttle of a P-39 fighter. It’s a crystal-clear morning on the desert … and the joy of flying makes you so damned happy that you want to shout for joy. You feel so lucky, so blessed to be a fighter pilot.”
Yeager relished the thought of going up against Germany’s best and recounted being stationed near a small English village.
“The locals in the nearby village of Yoxford,” he recalled, “resented having 7,000 Yanks descend on them, their pubs and their women, and were rude and nasty.”
In combat from February 1944, Yeager had accounted for an Me-109, over Berlin, by early March, when, on his eighth mission, he was shot down near Bordeaux. Escaping via resistance networks to Spain, he was back in England by May.
Normally, pilots who were shot down were sent back home, for fear of being shot down again, and being tortured to reveal information on partisans and escape routes.
Yeager wouldn’t have it — and pushed his way to the top, to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“Screw the regulations. I was brassy and pushed my way up the chain of command at group headquarters arguing my case,” he said.
“General,” he said, “I don’t want to leave my buddies after only eight missions. It just isn’t right. I have a lot of fighting left to do.”
Eisenhower was moved, granting his request … the war was back on.
He would end his tour shooting down 13 planes, including five in one mission. “The first time I ever saw a jet,” he said, “I shot it down.” It was a Messerschmitt Me 262, and he was the first in the 363rd to do so.
“He flew like a demon and was always taking calculated risks that are the essence of his personality,” said his close friend and squadron leader Bud Anderson.
“We all like to buzz, but Chuck buzzed a few feet lower than the rest of us. And when Yeager attacked, he was ferocious. Yeager was the best. Period. No one matched his skill or courage or, I might add, his capacity to raise hell and have fun.”
In 1945 he and Glennis married. Yeager joined the USAF test pilot school at Muroc (now known as Edwards Air Force Base), and in June 1947 he was enlisted in the X-1 programme, making his first powered flight — reaching Mach .85 — that August.
Tom Wolfe’s description of Muroc in The Right Stuff, encapsulates what military families of the day, had to face. In those days, the service lost, on average, about one pilot a month.
Muroc was up in the high elevations of the Mojave Desert. It looked like some fossil landscape that had long since been left behind by the rest of terrestrial evolution. It was full of huge dry lake beds, the biggest being Rogers Lake. Other than sagebrush the only vegetation was Joshua trees, twisted freaks of the plant world that looked like a cross between cactus and Japanese bonsai. They had a dark petrified green color and horribly crippled branches. At dusk the Joshua trees stood out in silhouette on the fossil wasteland like some arthritic nightmare. In the summer the temperature went up to 110 degrees as a matter of course, and the dry lake beds were covered in sand, and there would be windstorms and sandstorms right out of a Foreign Legion movie. At night it would drop to near freezing, and in December it would start raining, and the dry lakes would fill up with a few inches of water, and some sort of putrid prehistoric shrimps would work their way up from out of the ooze, and sea gulls would come flying in a hundred miles or more from the ocean, over the mountains, to gobble up these squirming little throwbacks.Tom Wolfe
Yeager continued working on the X-1 and the X1A, in which he became the second man, after Scott Crossfield, to fly at twice the speed of sound, Mach 2.44, on 12 December 1953.
In the quiet desert, the single most important member of the X-1 team was Yeager’s flight engineer, Jack Ridley. Ridley was an excellent pilot in his own right, a standout graduate student of Caltech and the only man to ever whip Yeager in a dogfight.
“Without Jack Ridley,” Yeager wrote, “the X-1 probably would never have succeeded.”
Ridley also carried Beeman’s gum, and Yeager would often ask him for a stick, which would become a joke between the two.
Flying as co-pilot in a C-47 over Japan on March 12, 1957, Ridley died at age 41 when the transport crashed into a snow-covered Mt. Shirouma, northwest of Tokyo.
In 1953, Bell delivered a new aircraft, the X-1A, designed to fly twice the speed of sound, Huntington Quarterly reported.
On December 12, 1953, Yeager strapped into the X-1A, fired three engines, and began his climb. But there was a problem – he was blinded by the sun, couldn’t see his controls and consequently his angle of ascent was too steep.
He reached 80,000 feet (the outer limits of the atmosphere) at 2.4 Mach, setting a new record. But he was moving too high, too fast and his plane rebelled. The X-1A began rolling and spinning toward the desert floor.
“I was crashing around in that cockpit, slamming violently from side to side, front to back, battered to the point where I was too stunned to think,” Yeager recalled.
He radioed Ridley. “I don’t know whether or not I can get back. I gotta save myself. I don’t know if I’ve torn up this thing or not, but Christ …” he sobbed.
But he somehow managed to regain control of the X-1A at 5,000 feet.
“You won’t have to run a structural demonstration on this damned thing,” he joked. He had cheated death once again.
“I don’t know of another pilot who could have walked away from that one,” noted Gen. Albert G. Boyd. “The gyrations were so severe that there was an indentation on the canopy where he struck it with his head. He bent the control stick. Chuck knew he was going to die.
“No pilot could listen to the tape of Yeager’s last ride in the X-IA without getting goosebumps. One moment, we’re listening to a pilot in dire circumstances. In less than a minute, he’s back in control and cracking a joke. It’s the most dramatic and impressive thing I’ve ever heard.”
He would leave Muroc in 1954 and in that decade and the 1960s, he held commands in Germany, France, Spain and the US, including four years as commandant of the USAF’s aerospace research pilot school.
By the time the Vietnam War rolled around, Yeager was a full-bird colonel and was deployed to Southeast Asia. Flying from the 405th Tactical Fighter Wing, he led F-100D Super Sabres in 127 air missions in South Vietnam.
Yeager would later shun the acclaim, pointing to USAF wingman Bob Hoover as the best pilot he ever saw. Following the war, Hoover would wow airshow audiences in his P-51 Mustang and Shrike Commander, leaving us in 2016.
In his memoir, he was annoyed when people asked him if he had the right stuff, since he felt it implied a talent he was born with.
“All I know is I worked my tail off learning to learn how to fly, and worked hard at it all the way,” he wrote. “If there is such a thing as the right stuff in piloting, then it is experience. The secret to my success was that somehow I always managed to live to fly another day.”
Yeager had such an impact on aviation that he actually began to change the way people spoke. It was his coolness under pressure combined with his distinctive West Virginia drawl that transformed the dialect of an entire generation of pilots.
Airline pilots throughout the country began mimicking his style.
“That voice,” Tom Wolfe writes, “started drifting down from on high. At first the tower at Edwards began to notice that all of a sudden there were an awful lot of test pilots up there with West Virginia drawls … Military pilots and then, soon, airline pilots, pilots from Maine and Massachusetts and the Dakotas and Oregon and everywhere else, began to talk in that poker-hollow West Virginia drawl, or as close to it as they could bend their native accents. It was the drawl of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.”
He retired in 1976 as a brigadier-general — his wife thought he should have made a full general.
Yeager’s decorations included the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Bronze Star.
He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, from President Ronald Reagan in 1985.
Glennis died in 1990. In 2003 Yeager married Victoria D’Angelo. She and three of the four children from his first marriage survive him.
Sources: CNN, The Guardian, Huntington Quarterly, Yeager, The Right Stuff, New York Times, Wikipedia, National Post, CBC, Military.com