Chuck Yeager, the legendary pilot whose flight in the Bell X-1 in 1947 made the West Virginia-born test pilot the first to ever exceed the speed of sound, has died at 97 in Los Angeles. Charles Elwood Yeager was born on February 13, 1923, in Myra, West Virginia, the son of a coal field driller.
Unlike many pilots who reached the pinnacle of test flying with engineering or aerospace degrees from Purdue or USC, Yeager’s military career started as an enlisted man, serving as a U.S. Army private in World War II. In fact, he began his military service fixing, not flying, airplanes. But he had other ideas, and within a year he had gotten his wings and began flying as a flight officer. Yeager chose to pursue flying, he later joked, because pilots were more likely to get a date with a pretty woman than mechanics were. During the war, Yeager was credited with 11-1/2 enemy aircraft downed. In fact, he became an ace in one day, shooting down five German aircraft—he later would shoot down three Luftwaffe aircraft in a single day.
After the war, Yeager became a test pilot and wound up at Muroc Army Air Field (now Edwards Air Force Base) in the Mojave Desert of Southern California, where he got the chance to fly the Bell X-1, a then-top secret rocket plane that the military hoped would be able to break the so-called sound barrier. It did. It was on October 14, 1947, that the 24-year-old Yeager climbed into the X-1 from the B-29 mother ship at 23,000 feet and launched, quickly climbing to 45,000 feet and hitting Mach 1.05.
It wasn’t instant fame for the pilot, though. In fact, the flight wasn’t announced until the next year, and only then because it had been reported by civilian press. Yeager was awarded the prestigious Collier trophy for the feat while he continued test-flying, becoming the second pilot, after Scott Crossfield, to break Mach 2.0, which he did in a Bell X-1A, hitting Mach 2.44. He also flew the chase plane when his lifelong friend Jackie Cochran became the first woman, in 1953, to fly supersonic.
After his test pilot career, Yeager, who by the 1960s had become a full-bird Colonel, went on to command USAF bases in Europe and the United States. He also headed the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School, where advanced flight training was given to the military’s best pilots, some of whom would go on to become astronauts, an opportunity not afforded to Yeager because he lacked a college education. Yeager would go on to fly 127 missions in Vietnam while commanding a squadron in the Philippines, before being promoted to Brigadier General in 1969. He retired from the Air Force in 1975 as one of the most highly decorated officers in Air Force history.
Yeager was well known already, but his fame advanced to another level with the 1983 release of the Philip Kaufman film, The Right Stuff, in which his character, played by actor Sam Shepard, is shown as a hard-drinking, fast-flying fly boy, a characterization that he approved and that people who knew him at the time said was right on the money. The night before his record-breaking flight in the X-1, which he dubbed Glamourous Glennis, after his wife, Yeager injured his ribs in a late-night horseback riding accident after drinks at Pancho’s Place, the local bar owned by Pancho Barnes. Fearing that he might lose his chance to be the first pilot to go supersonic, Yeager hid the injury from his superiors and was only able to fly the X-1 that next day after his crew chief and friend Jack Ridley helped him figure out a way to close the hatch, with a broken off broom handle. The best part about the story, along with most of the other stories about Yeager, was that it was all true.
Yeager’s fame will also live on in another way. The drawl that many airline pilots adopted throughout the ’60s and ’70s was based on Yeager’s distinctive, laid-back West Virginia style of speech.
Yeager was also a complicated figure, one who was known for his sometimes bristly demeanor around fans and his penchant in his later years for filing infringement lawsuits, including one against Airbus in 2019 for using his name in a 2017 press release promoting one of its experimental helicopters.
Yeager won’t be remembered for any of that, though, but instead as the swashbuckling pilot, an enlisted man who showed his mettle as a WWII ace, who went on to become the first pilot to fly faster than the speed of sound (and then some), a commander who would go on to teach his very own brand of the right stuff to future astronauts and test pilots, and, mostly, as a man who flew and lived his life on his own terms, with a swagger that seemed to say it all.
Yeager is survived by his second wife, Victoria D’Angelo, and three children. Memorial plans are pending.
Blue skies, General.