Chuck Yeager: The Pilot Who Broke the Sound Barrier

Chuck Yeager and the X-1
Chuck Yeager and the X-1.

Chuck Yeager (born Charles Elwood Yeager on February 13, 1923) is best known for being the first pilot to break the sound barrier. As a decorated Air Force officer and a record-setting test pilot, Yeager is considered an icon of early aviation.

Early Life

Chuck Yeager was born in the small farming community of Myra, West Virginia. He grew up in nearby Hamlin, the middle of Albert Hal and Susie May Yeager’s five children.

By adolescence, he was skilled as both a hunter and mechanic. An indifferent student, he had no thought of going to college when he graduated from Hamlin High School in the spring of 1941. Instead, he enlisted for a two-year stint with the US Army Air Force in September 1941 and was sent to George Air Force Base in Victorville, California. He spent the next 34 years in the military.

He enlisted as an airplane mechanic, with no thought of becoming a pilot. In fact, he was violently airsick the first few times he went up as a passenger. But he quickly gained his equilibrium and got into a flight training program. Gifted with better than 20/20 vision and natural dexterity, Yeager soon became a standout pilot, graduating as a flight officer in March 1943.

World War II Ace

Yeager was assigned to the 357th Fighter Group and spent six months training at various sites around the country. While stationed near Oroville, California, he met an 18-year-old secretary named Glennis Dickhouse.

Like many wartime couples, they fell in love just in time for Yeager to be sent into combat. He was shipped to England in November 1943.

Assigned to RAF Leiston on the southeastern coast, Yeager named his P-51 Mustang the “Glamorous Glennis” in honor of his sweetheart and waited for his chance to fight.

“Man, I can’t believe how fast luck changes in war,” he later observed. On March 5, 1944, just one day after he marked his first confirmed kill over Berlin, he found himself shot down over France.

Over the next two months, Yeager gave assistance to French resistance fighters, who in turn helped him and other pilots escape over the Pyrenees to Spain. He was later awarded a Bronze Star for helping another wounded pilot, navigator “Pat” Patterson, escape across the mountains.

Under Army regulations at the time, returned pilots were not allowed back into the air, and Yeager was faced with the likely end of his flying career. Anxious to return to combat, he managed to wrangle a meeting with General Dwight Eisenhower to plead his case. “I was so in awe,” said Yeager, “I could barely talk.” Eisenhower eventually took Yeager’s case to the War Department, and the young pilot was returned to the air.

He finished out the war with 11.5 confirmed victories, including an “ace in a day,” downing five enemy aircraft in a single afternoon in October 1944. The Army newspaper Stars and Stripes ran a front-page headline: FIVE KILLS VINDICATES IKE’S DECISION.

Breaking the Sound Barrier

Yeager returned to the United States as a captain and married his sweetheart Glennis.

After graduating from test pilot school, he was sent to Muroc Army Air Field (later named Edwards Air Force Base) deep in the California desert. Here, he joined a major research effort to develop a more advanced air force fleet.

One of the challenges faced by the research team was breaking the sound barrier. To achieve and research supersonic speeds, Bell Aircraft Corporation (which was under contract with the US Army Air Force and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) designed what became the X-1, a rocket-engine-powered aircraft shaped like a machine-gun bullet for stability at high speeds. Yeager was selected to make the first manned flight in the fall of 1947.

The night before the flight, Yeager was thrown from a horse during an evening ride, breaking two ribs. Fearing he’d be bumped from the historic flight, he didn’t tell anyone about his injury.

On October 14, 1947, Yeager and the X-1 were loaded into the bomb bay of B-29 Superfortress and taken up to an altitude of 25,000. The X-1 was dropped through the doors; Yeager fired off the rocket engine and climbed to over 40,000. He broke through the sonic barrier at 662 miles per hour.

In his autobiography, Yeager admitted the moment was a bit anticlimactic. “It took a damned instrument to tell me what I’d done. There should have been a bump in the road, something to let you know you’d just punched a nice clean hole through the sound barrier.”

Later Career and Legacy

News of his achievement broke in June 1948, and Yeager suddenly found himself a national celebrity. Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, he continued to test experimental aircraft. In December 1953, he set a new speed record, reaching up to 1,620 mph. Moments later, he spun out of control, dropping 51,000 feet in less than a minute before regaining control of the aircraft and landing without incident. The feat won him the Distinguished Service Medal in 1954.

With only a high school education, Yeager was ineligible for the astronaut program in the 1960s. “The guys didn’t have a hell of a lot of control,” he said of the NASA program in a 2017 interview, “and that, to me, isn’t flying. I wasn’t interested.”  

In December 1963, Yeager piloted a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter to 108,700 feet, nearly at the edge of space. Suddenly, the plane went into a spin and hurtled back towards earth. Yeager struggled to regain control before finally ejecting at just 8,500 feet above the desert floor.

From the 1940s until his retirement as a brigadier general in 1975, Yeager also served as an active duty fighter pilot, with long stints in Germany, France, Spain, the Philippines, and Pakistan.

Civilian Life

Yeager has kept active since retiring more than 40 years ago. For many years, he test-piloted light commercial planes for Piper Aircraft and served as a pitchman for AC Delco batteries. He’s done movie cameos and been a technical advisor for flight simulator video games. He is active on social media and continues to play a role in his non-profit, the General Chuck Yeager Foundation.

Chuck Yeager Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Charles Elwood Yeager 
  • Also Known As: Chuck Yeager
  • Occupation: Air Force officer and test pilot
  • Born: February 13, 1923 in Myra, West Virginia, USA
  • Education: High school diploma
  • Key Accomplishments: First pilot to break the sound barrier
  • Spouse Name: Glennis Yeager (1945-1990), Victoria Scott D'Angelo (2003-)
  • Children's Names: Susan, Don, Mickey, and Sharon

Sources

  • Yeager, Chuck, and Leo Janos. Yeager: an Autobiography. Pimlico, 2000.
  • Yeager, Chuck. “Breaking the Sound Barrier.” Popular Mechanics, Nov. 1987.
  • Young, James. “The War Years.” General Chuck Yeager, www.chuckyeager.com/1943-1945-the-war-years.
  • Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. Vintage Classics, 2018.
  • “The Crash of Yeager's NF-104.” Yeager & the NF-104, 2002, www.check-six.com/Crash_Sites/NF-104A_crash_site.htm.