General Charles “Chuck” Yeager, an Air Force pilot and record-breaking test pilot, passed away yesterday at 97 years old.
In 1950, a Post reader from Huntington, West Virginia wrote in to express that he had enjoyed a recent article on a group of intrepid American aviators, particularly since the story focused on Chuck Yeager, a hometown hero of nearby Hamlin. “People here are proud of him,” the letter read, “but they all wonder, as do I, ‘Why doesn’t the Air Force promote him?’ … it looks like Captain Chuck ought to get a bump. Anyone agree?”
The article, “They Fly Our X-Ships,” was only the beginning of the story for Captain Yeager. (Tom Wolfe would afford the test pilot larger renown with his 1979 book The Right Stuff, a commendation of Yeager’s flying acumen.) When the Post covered Yeager and the other test pilots working with “rocket airplanes” in the Mojave Desert in the ’40s, he had just become the first human being to travel faster than the speed of sound.
Yeager flew in World War II, downing 13 German planes and being shot down himself in France (“He escaped into Spain, was jailed, escaped again.”). Recognized by his superiors as a “born flier,” Yeager was selected for test runs of the Bell X-1, a rocket-powered plane, over Rogers Dry Lake in southern California. The crew was unsure they’d be able to break the sound barrier, but by all accounts the mood among them on the Muroc Army Air Field in 1947 was electric. On his fourth run, Yeager blasted all four rockets at once — against orders — and came just short of sonic speed. To allay the doubts of their commander, Brigadier General Albert Boyd, Yeager and Major Jackie Ridley travelled to Dayton to share data showing they could take the X-1 all the way.
It was on Yeager’s ninth powered flight in the X-1, on October 14, 1947, that he went supersonic. “Flame leaped from the rocket tubes,” the Post story goes. “It stood forth, sharp-edged and 100 feet long. Yeager tilted the X-1 into a climb and went through the dreaded sonic wall as if it were cheese.” He travelled 25 times the speed the Wright brothers had 44 years earlier, as the Times reported the next year.
Decades later, to the likely delight of the West Virginian Post reader, Captain Yeager did get several “bumps” in rank. He became a colonel in 1961 and a brigadier general in 1969.
Yeager admitted, years after his first supersonic flight, that he wasn’t in the best shape when he first took on the task of flying the X-1. He had broken some ribs after being thrown from a horse while racing his wife in the desert, a fact he shared with Ridley. His insistence on flying — bordering on recklessness — suited, as a peer referred to Yeager in 1948, “a man with not a single nerve in his body.”
Featured image by Gene Lester/ SEPS
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