Chuck Yeager with the X-1 rocket plane

The Man Who Went Supersonic

Chuck Yeager with the X-1 rocket plane
Yeager with the X-1 rocket plane

 

Chuck Yeager was born on February 13, 1923 in Myra, West Virginia. Left on his own to explore the woods and streams around his house, he learned to hunt and fish at an early age.

Two remarkable things became more and more apparent as Yeager grew up.

First, he had unusually sharp eyesight. Military doctors would later say his vision was 20/10, twice as acute as “normal” human eyes.

Second, he was exceptionally skilled with machines. By the time he was a teenager, Yeager was disassembling engines and faultlessly putting them back together in his father’s machine shop.

Joining the Military

In June of 1941, Yeager graduated from high school. At the age of 18, he joined the military as an Enlisted Private, and quickly found a home as a smart and capable aircraft mechanic. Little did he know how much farther his military career would take him.

The U.S. joined World War II only 6 months later. As an incentive to increase the number of pilots, the USAAF (predecessor to the Air Force) removed previous hurdles to the pilot program, such as a required 2 years of college. Yeager, who had enlisted with only a high school diploma, saw his chance to move up.

Once enrolled in the fighter program, other unusual characteristics became immediately apparent to Yeager’s instructors. He remained cool and calm under the most stressful conditions. He possessed an unusually high level of physical coordination. And he was able to almost instinctively identify mechanical issues in a variety of different aircraft.

 

Chuck Yeager's 3rd P-51 mustang aircraft
Chuck Yeager’s 3rd P-51 Mustang

 

As a fighter pilot battling the German Luftwaffe over occupied France, Yeager proved more than capable. He shot down multiple enemy fighters, at one point 5 in the same engagement. During his eighth mission he was shot down over France and evaded capture. He was one of the few “evader” fighter pilots to receive special permission to take to the skies in battle over France again.

Making History as a Test Pilot

After the War ended, Yeager found himself as a maintenance officer for the Flight Testing Division of Wright Field, what would become the heart of Air Force R&D on future plane technology.

At the same time, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was looking for a pilot brave enough to help test the limits of the experimental Bell X-1 rocket plane. In particular, the X-1 was developed with the hope of eventually sending a pilot beyond the speed of sound. The sonic barrier was a limit some engineers said could not be broken without irrecoverable damage to any aircraft (not to mention the unlucky pilot within).

But on October 14th, 1947 Yeager took the X-1 broke the barrier and introduced the world to the sonic boom, as well as opening up a whole new world of supersonic aircraft (and eventually spacecraft).

 

Yeager would go on to pilot the upgraded Bell X-1A, and achieve an amazing Mach 2.44 speed record before later almost dying when the X-1A’s flight became unstable and went out of control. Yeager felt 8G’s of force as the craft rolled one way, then the other, then plunged almost 50,000 feet towards the ground before Yeager regained control. In the process, he smashed his head into the glass canopy of the craft, shattering it.

 

In 1958 the NACA organization would be reorganized into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Much of the testing on rocket-powered flight would be put to use in the Space Race.

Even though he  would never go to space, Yeager trained many of the military test pilots who would go on to have legendary NASA careers.

 

Further Information

Chuck Yeager’s website

Jim Zimbo on Yeager as an outdoorsman

Chuck Yeager testing a captured North Korean MiG

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