Chuck Yeager

The first to race sound and win

Legendary pilot Chuck Yeager on the cockpit ladder of an F-15B sometime in the 80s
(Photo: National Air and Space Museum)

Today’s article is about Charles “Chuck” Elwood Yeager (1923-2020), one of the true legends of aviation history. World War II fighter pilot, escapee from Nazi-controlled Europe, test pilot who flew 201 types of aircraft, the first man to break the sound barrier, and one of the very few to rise from private to brigadier general – Yeager did it all.
 
Chuck was born near and from age five grew up in Hamlin, West Virginia. His father had a natural gas drilling business, and Chuck, who was fascinated by machinery, learned how to help maintain and repair the drilling equipment and the family’s pickup trucks.
 
He first came in contact with the Army in the summer of 1939, when he attended a Citizens Military Training Camp, an experience he repeated the next summer. He signed up with the Army Air Corps in September 1941, three months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Being 18 years old and never having progressed beyond a high school diploma, he was ineligible for pilot training, but his knack for machinery came in handy as he was trained as an aircraft mechanic.

Corporal Chuck Yeager (left) as crew chief in the spring of 1942
(Photo: chuckyeager.com)

The entry into World War II left the Army Air Forces (which the Air Corps became earlier that year) with a shortage of pilots. The “flying sergeant” program was quickly introduced to allow enlisted men to be trained as pilots even if they were too young and lacked a college degree. These men typically ended up flying reconnaissance, cargo and bomber planes, but Yeager’s physical coordination, his ability to stay focused under stress, and his outstanding eyesight earned him training on the P-39 Airacobra fighter after he joined the program in late 1942. His sharp eyes became a source of admiration for his peers later in his career: his fellow pilots often wondered how he could spot a distant target which they themselves only started to see minutes later.

Yeager in flight school
(Photo: AFA Library)

In June 1943, Yeager and a fellow flight officer (both of them being junior to the commissioned officers who normally flew fighters) were sent to arrange some entertainment for the unit. Yeager met the social director of the local United Service Organizations (USO) office, a young lady called Glennis Dickhouse. The two quickly developed a bond, and Yeager started naming his planes after her. They would get married in 1945 and stay together until her death in 1990.

Chuck Yeager with his wife Glennis
(Photo: chuckyeager.com)

Yeager shipped to England in late 1943, and started flying the excellent P-51 Mustangs (Read our earlier article), naming the first one assigned to him Glamorous Glen after his girlfriend. On March 5, 1944, one day after his seventh mission and first kill (a Bf 109 - Read our earlier article), he was shot down while trying to make a head-on attack against a group of Focke-Wulf Fw 190s. Yeager bailed out, but now he was in Nazi-occupied France. Luckily for him, he landed in a forest where he met a friendly French woodcutter the next morning who helped him contact the Maquis, the French resistance. Over the next few weeks, the Maquis escorted him and three other downed American airmen to the Pyrenees mountains on the border to neutral Spain, while he helped them set timers for explosives, a skill he learned in his father’s gas drilling business.
 
The Americans split up into groups, and Yeager traveled on with a B-24 navigator. Days later, they rested in a deserted mountain cabin and the man hung out his socks to dry. This proved to be a mistake when a passing German patrol noticed the socks the next morning and realized the cabin was occupied. They opened fire; Yeager jumped out the back window, threw his injured comrade on a log slide, and slid down to the safety of a creek several thousand feet below the cabin. Once they eventually reached the Spanish side of the mountains, Yeager left his companion by a road where a Spanish border patrol was sure to find him, then went to turn himself in to the authorities, returning to his unit in England on May 15.

Yeager with his ground crew during World War II
(Photo: chuckyeager.com)

Yeager was now an “evader,” someone who was shot down and helped to safety by anti-Nazi resistance groups. Such men were not allowed to fly again in the same theater: had they been shot down again and captured, they could have revealed details of the resistance under torture. Yeager, however, was not having any of that. He and a fellow evader met with Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower on June 12, 1944, almost a week after D-Day. They argued that with the Allies on the continent, resistance forces would be fighting openly, so the safety measure no longer made sense. After conferring with the War Department, Eisenhower agreed.

Chuk Yeager c.1944
(Photo: U.S. Air Force)

Yeager went on to fly over Europe for the rest of the war, eventually reaching 11.5 victories (0.5 being awarded for a joint kill with another pilot). He became “ace in a day,” downing five enemy planes on a single day, on October 12. Two of the five enemies went down without Yeager even firing a shot at them. He flew into a firing position behind them, and one of the German pilots became so unnerved that he veered into the other, causing both planes to crash. On another occasion, Yeager was separated from his squadron and came upon a Me 262 (Read our earlier article) jet fighter in the middle of landing. This was the only time a Me 262 was slow enough to be reliably engaged by a piston-engine plane, so Yeager dove down to the airfield and braved flak fire to take out the rare prize. His last mission occurred on January 15, 1945. He was disappointed to miss a massive engagement in which his squadron destroyed 57 German planes. Instead, he and another pilot were held back as “spares,” and spent the time dropping their empty external fuel tanks over Switzerland and making practice strafing runs against it.

Glamorous Glen III, the plane Yeager scored most of his victories
(Photo: U.S. Air Force)

After returning to the U.S. in February, Yeager, as an evader, could choose any base to serve at, and he picked Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, as his wife was pregnant, and the place was close to his home. His experience with both flying and maintenance made him a test pilot for repaired aircraft, and attracted the attention of Colonel Albert Boyd, head of the Aeronautical Systems Flight Test Division. Boyd picked Yeager for a new test pilot school in 1946, then had him get involved with the quest to break the sound barrier the next year at Muroc Army Air Field (now Edwards Air Force Base).

Albert Boyd, photographed as a major general, the man who turned Yeager into a test pilot
(Photo: U.S. Air Force)

The Bell X-1 experimental plane was originally piloted by the company’s own test pilot, Chalmers Goodlin. Goodlin, however, started to demand a huge amount of money for the dangerous job, which bogged down the process. Colonel Boyd stepped in and successfully lobbied to get the project under his own control. He chose 24-year-old Yeager to fly the rocket plane. Yeager worked together with fellow test pilot Jack Ridley, who had a gift at explaining complex mathematical and physical concepts in a way that Yeager could understand even without a higher education. Yeager once said “Even before we flew the X-1, I talked to [Ridley] at great length about ‘what are we getting into? You know, what's it mean? We're going to be fooling around out of my realm…and you may understand this stuff but I don't. What the hell are we getting into?' And Jack would patiently explain. And I had a great deal of confidence in him and, you know, if he said something, that, to me, was from the Bible. You could take it to the bank."

The test unit at Muroc. Yeager is third from left, Jack Ridley is second from right
(Photo: National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics)

On the evening of October 12, 1947, two days before the planned attempt to reach and exceed 1 Mach, Yeager and Glennis went on a ride. Racing back to the barn and not realizing in the dark that the gate was closed, Yeager’s horse hit the gate and threw off his rider, breaking two of Chuck’s ribs. Yeager knew that the flight would be called off if he reported the injury, so he had his wife drive him to an off-base doctor who taped his ribs together.
 
Yeager knew he could do the flight, but he also knew he wouldn’t be able to close the X-1’s door with broken ribs, as it had to be pulled into place and latched shut from the inside. Ridley helped him out by jury-rigging a lever out of a broomstick, which Yeager took with him on the historic mission. The flight went off without a hitch and Chuck Yeager became the fastest man in history up to that date. (In the interest of historical accuracy, we must mention that some other pilots might have breached the sound barrier before, but under unverified circumstances. George Welch might have done so in an XP-86 Sabre jet two weeks before Yeager, and there were several possible earlier cases involving dives and fatal accidents, but none of these were confirmed.)

Yeager in the cockpit of the Bell X-1, named Glamorous Glennis after his wife
(Photo: Jack Ridley)

Yeager achieved celebrity status with his flight, but became the truly legendary test pilot over the following seven years. There was a steady stream of experimental prototypes showing up at Muroc, sleek shiny aircraft which contrasted sharply to the weather-beaten Model A Ford Yeager drove to work. Engineers loved working with Yeager, as he recorded his flight data points with extreme precision, and had a talent for ferreting out and understanding a plane’s flaws.

The Bell X-1 Yeager broke the sound barrier with
(Photo: NASA Langley Research Center)

Yeager made a brief trip to Okinawa in 1953 for what he thought was his most demanding assignment up to that point. North Korean pilot No Kum-sok had recently defected to South Korea, bringing with him a fully intact Soviet-made MiG-15 jet fighter. Yeager had to work on a tight schedule in dangerously bad weather to test the limits of what was a very unforgiving plane susceptible to sudden pitch-ups and spins. The series of flights, including a near-vertical dive at 0.98 Mach which Yeager knew in advance would cause him to lose elevator control, revealed that while the America F-86 Sabre was a better fighter overall, the MiG-15 did have some advantages in climb, acceleration and flight ceiling.

Yeager and Boyd during the testing of the Mig-15
(Photo: mach-buster.co.uk)

After his return to the States, Yeager flew as a chase pilot for Jackie Cochran’s flight which made her the first woman to breach the sound barrier, but his own next major accomplishment was also just around the corner. U.S. Navy pilot Scott Crossfield reached Mach 2, twice the speed of sound, in a D-558-II Skyrocket on November 20, 1953. Yeager and his old friend Ridley decided to not only beat Crossfield’s record, but to do it before December 17, 1953 – the date was the 50th anniversary of the historic first flight of the Wright brothers, and an official celebration was being planned for Crossfield, “the fastest man alive.” Yeager managed to beat Crossfield speed in the Bell X-1A on December 12, with five days to spare.
 
The flight did not, however, go smoothly. Shortly after reaching Mach 2.44, Yeager encountered a physical phenomenon affecting very fast-flying aircraft that was not very well understood at the time. The plane was going so fast that the wings and tail fins were no longer big enough to compensate for the inertia of the fuselage. The X-1A started to roll, pitch and yaw out of control, dropping from an altitude of 80,000 ft (24,000 m) to 29,000 ft (8,800 m) before Yeager could regain control and land without further incidents.

An F86 Sabre chase plane following Yeager’s X-1A as it glides home after the near-fatal record flight
(Photo: NASA)

Yeager returned to a service of more directly military nature and held several squadron and wing commands between in America and Europe between 1954 and 1960. In 1962, then-Colonel Chuck Yeager became the first commandant of the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School, the institution that trained astronauts for NASA and the U.S. Air Force. Yeager himself was not eligible to become an astronaut due to his lack of college education, but his keen technical understanding and tremendous experience qualified him to train the men who were.

Yeager as commandant of the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School
(Photo: U.S. Air Force)

He made one flight with Neil Armstrong, the man who would become the first to walk on the Moon. The two of them were flying a plane to evaluate the suitability of a Nevada dry lake as an emergency landing site for the X-15 experimental rocket plane. Yeager knew that the dry lake was too wet after recent rains, but Armstrong insisted on going there and trying a touch-and-go. Yeager replied "You may touch, but you ain't gonna go!"  He was proven right when the plane got stuck in the mud, and the two had to wait to be rescued.

Yeager with an XB-51, one of the many planes he tested
(Photo: U.S. Air Force)

Yeager’s last attempt to set a new flying record came in December 1963, flying a Lockheed NF-104A aerospace trainer while wearing a pressurized pilot’s suit similar to a spacesuit. He reached a near-record altitude of over 108,000 ft (32,920 m) when the plane went into a flat spin. Yeager plummeted 90,000 ft (27,430 m) before managing to punch out. The base of his seat slammed into Yeager after during ejection; its still-hot rocket motor broke the faceplate of his helmet and ignited his emergency oxygen supply. The facial burns he suffered during the descent almost cost him an eye and required long and painful medical care. Yeager knew he barely avoided death, and gave up on further record attempts.

A Lockheed NF-104 in a steep climb
(Photo: U.S. Air Force)

He took command of the 405th Tactical Fighter Wing at Clark Air Base in the Philippines in 1966 and flew 127 missions over Vietnam during the war and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. He then held two further commands, one in South Korea during the Pueblo Crisis in 1968, when the eponymous American military vessel was seized by North Korean forces.  He was promoted to brigadier general and assigned as vice-commander of the 17th Air Force in 1969.

Chuck Yeager as brigadier general
(Photo: U.S. Air Force)

Yeager was assigned as Air Attaché to Pakistan from 1971 to 1973 to advise the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). This was a time of high tensions between the country and India, and open hostilities soon broke out in what became known as the Third India-Pakistan War. Yeager decided to stay in the country and continue overseeing PAF operations. He also hopped into the cockpit regularly – not to fight in combat, but to pick up downed Indian pilots and to document the wreckages of Soviet-built Indian planes.
 
Chuck Yeager retired in 1975. On October 14, 1996, the 50th anniversary of his historic faster-than-sound flight, he took to the skies in an F-15D Eagle named Glamorous Glennis III to repeat the feat. The chase plane was flown by Bob Hoover, who was Yeager’s wingman during the original flight. He concluded his speech with “All that I am… I owe to the Air Force.”
 
Inseparable from flying, he flew on one more anniversary, on October 14, 2012, this time as a copilot, in an F-15E Eagle. He passed away on December 7, 2020, at age 97, in Los Angeles.

Chuck Yeager on the 65th anniversary memorial flight with the F15D “Glamorous Glennis III”
(Photo: U.S. Air Force)

80th Anniversary Bulge Tour

Armored vehicles in Bastogne during a Battle of the Bulge anniversary
(Photo: author's own)
Join the celebration of the 80th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge and remember the bloodiest battle for the American forces in World War II. On this tour, you can see where the brave soldiers held their ground during the siege of Bastogne, and experience the citizens “throwing nuts” to commemorate their liberators. If you have any questions related to this or other tours, please contact our travel consultants at info@beachesofnormandy.com or by calling our toll-free number: +1 855-473-1999.
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