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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5 Responses to “The Man Who Went Supersonic”

  1. Carole Smith

    Thank you for this article. It was very interesting to read a brief summary of this man’s rise from simple beginnings to a truly outstanding career in aviation. As a retired elementary teacher, I am concerned by the current trend in education to slight true Americans who have greatly impacted our lives and our country. If I was still teaching, I would definitely share this overview with my class and encourage my students to research Mr. Yeager further to learn more about this Amercian role model.

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  2. Tom Condon

    The extreme vibration just short of the sound barrier led engineers to think breaking the speed of sound would cause a catastrophic crash. The contractors working up to the record were reticent, and the military sent Yeager, who broke the sound barrier and left the turbulence behind. He used to watch the Sierras, and could detect when the ice would break, when he would go fishing for golden trout, the only time of year they would take bait. Others thought erroneously that their not taking bait meant they were going extinct. He preferred hiking the wilderness to swatting a golf ball like other officers. Most outdoorsmen would stop shaving or bathing, but Rangers encountering him back woods would think Yeager–weeks into his trip–had just embarked, clean and fresh-shaven. He liked an onion as a hiking snack.

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  3. Robert Windel

    Very interesting. Yeager was certainly an aeronautics pioneer and American hero. Thank you for the succinct information.

    Reply
  4. Justin Adkins

    My grandfather was born and raised in Myra West Virginia. His name is George Sowards. (Also a WWII vet). My grandfather knew Yeager as a kid and even graduated with Yeager from Hamlin high school. Both my grand parents told me stories about Yeager. One time Yeager flew a plane under a bridge over the kanawha river. Yeager got n quite a bit of trouble over numerous daredevil stunts like that

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  5. DJ

    I had the honor to meet then retired General Yeager in New Orleans when I was 15 in the late 1970s when he was visiting one of his squadron buddies from WWII. The friend owned a car dealership, and Yeager would come by every few years and visit. I brought a camera and just showed up. Not only was I invited into the owners offices, but I got to talk to both of them for about an hour. It was a honor to be just near these two aces, and I was overwhelmed with my good luck. They had some well rehearsed stories and you could tell they were both characters who liked to ham it up with the jovial banter for entertainment. But they were also serious, especially in their belief that my generation may need to fight an even larger evil than the Nazis in the coming years. That never came to pass, but I think about their warnings every time I see the generation of misinformed young people in our country today who have been turned into useful idiots by the Leftist in the media and Education.

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