At the age of 97, retired U.S. Air Force Brigadier General pilot Chuck Yeager died on December 7th 2020. His wife, Victoria Yeager, announced his passing.
Recognized by many as one of the United States’ greatest pilots of all time, Yeager’s life was one of immense bravery, sacrifice, and unrivaled achievement.
When Yeager enlisted, he wasn’t even eligible for flight training.
On September 12th 1941, Yeager enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF), and worked at George Air Force Base in Victorville, California as an aircraft mechanic. He wasn’t initially eligible for flight training due to his age and educational background.
When war broke out, Yeager’s 20/10 vision came into play.
When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, the USAAF changed its recruiting standards. Equipped with 20/10 vision — which, according to his autobiography had helped him shoot a deer at 600 yards — Yeager was accepted to flight training, graduating from Class 43C on March 10th 1943.
Before being deployed, Yeager flew the U.S. aircraft with ‘the highest total number of individual victories.’
Yeager was assigned to the 357th Fighter Group at Tonopah, Nevada, and trained as a fighter pilot. The plane he flew — the Bell P-39 Airacobra aircraft — was also used by the Soviet Air Force to achieve “the highest total number of individual victories attributed to any U.S. fighter type.” After being grounded for seven days after clipping a farmer’s tree during a training flight, Yeager was then shipped overseas on November 23rd, 1943, and was stationed in the United Kingdom at RAF Leiston.
Yeager named his aircraft “Glamorous Glen” after the woman he would later marry.
While flying P-51 Mustangs in combat with the 363d Fighter Squadron, Yeager named his aircraft “Glamorous Glen,” after his girlfriend Glennis Faye Dickhouse, whom he later married. Yeager described Glennis as a “good-luck charm,” saying “You’re my good-luck charm, hon. Any airplane I name after you always brings me home.”
Yeager was shot down over France, and built bombs for the French Resistance.
Yeager gained one victory before being shot down over France on his 8th mission on March 5th 1944. With the help of the French Resistance, he escaped to Spain on March 30th and returned to England on May 15th. During the weeks spent with the French Resistance, Yeager assisted by constructing bombs using skills taught to him by his father. On his return, Yeager was awarded the Bronze Star for helping an injured navigator to cross the Pyrenees.
Yeager “raised hell” with Dwight D. Eisenhower.
After protesting a regulation which prohibited escaped pilots from flying over enemy territory, Yeager spoke directly to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, saying “I raised so much hell that General Eisenhower finally let me go back to my squadron.” Returning to the skies, Yeager then shot down a German Junkers Ju 88 bomber over the English Channel, his second downed enemy aircraft.
Ace in a day.
On October 12th 1944, Yeager became the first pilot in his group to make “ace in a day” after destroying five enemy craft during one mission. Two of these aircraft were bested without firing a shot after Yeager’s positioning caused the pilot of a Messerschmidt Bf 109 to panic and collide with his wingman.
At war’s end, Yeager had 11.5 official victories.
By the end of World War II, Yeager had 11.5 official victories, which included one of the first air-to-air victories over a German Messerschmidt Me 262 — a jet fighter — which he shot down on its final landing approach.
The start of the next chapter: flight test division.
While stationed in the UK, Yeager was commissioned a second lieutenant, and was then promoted to captain. He flew his final mission on January 15th 1945 — his 61st mission — and then returned to the United States in February. His combined maintenance experience and high number of flight hours permitted him to become a functional test pilot of repaired aircraft, and was placed under the command of the head of the Aeronautical Systems Flight Test Division, Colonel Albert Boyd.
Remaining in the U.S. Air Force after the end of World War II, Yeager became a test pilot at Muroc Army Air Field in Edwards, California after he graduated from Air Material Command Flight Performance School.
After being selected as the sound barrier test pilot, he “better have paid insurance.”
Chalmers “Slick” Goodlin was initially selected as the test pilot who would attempt to break the sound barrier. But after Goodlin asked for $150,000 (which amounts to over $1.7 million in 2020), Yeager was selected to fly the Bell XS-1, the rocket-powered jet at the center of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) high-speed flight program.
According to his autobiography, Yeager stated that the unprecedented difficulty of the task ahead meant that questions were usually answered along the lines of “Yeager better have paid-up insurance.”
Broken ribs and broom handles.
Two nights before the test flight was due to commence, Yeager fell from a horse and broke two ribs. Concerned that his injury would disqualify him from the mission, he secretly went to a local doctor who taped his ribs. Yeager only told his wife and fellow project pilot Jack Ridley about the incident. Because of these injuries, Yeager was unable to seal the hatch of the Bell X-1 aircraft, which Ridley solved by constructing an extended lever out of a broom handle.
Mach 1.05: breaking the sound barrier.
On October 14th 1947 over the Rogers Dry Lake in the Mojave Desert, Yeager broke the sound barrier, flying the X-1 Glamorous Glennis at Mach 1.05 at an altitude of 45,000 feet. This very aircraft is now on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.
Mach 2.44: regaining the title of “fastest man alive.”
After Yeager and Ridley’s record was beaten by Scott Crossfield, a Navy pilot flying a D-558-II Skyrocket, the duo became determined to regain their title. On December 12th, 1953, just weeks before Crossfield was set to be named the “fastest man alive” at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Wright Brother’s first flight, the pair broke a new record, hitting Mach 2.44.
Plunging 51,000 feet in 60 seconds … and then landing safely.
During this flight, soon after reaching the record speed of Mach 2.44, Yeager lost control of the aircraft at 80,000 feet due to inertia coupling, a phenomenon which can result in catastrophic loss of control and stability. As the aircraft rolled, pitched, and yawed out of control, it dropped 51,000 feet in less than one minute. Yeager then regained control at around 29,000 feet, and managed to land the aircraft without further incident.
Training astronauts and flying bathtubs.
After several years commanding squadrons in West Germany, France, California, and Spain, Yeager became the first commandant of the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School as a full colonel in 1962. The school was re-designated from the USAF Flight Test Pilot School, and produced astronauts for both NASA and the USAF. Because Yeager only had a high school education, he was not eligible to become an astronaut himself. Between December 1963 and January 1964, Yeager completed five flights in the NASA M2-F1 lifting body, an unpowered prototype aircraft nicknamed the “flying bathtub.”
Vietnam and the Pueblo crisis.
Yeager took command of the 405th Tactical Fighter Wing at Clark Air Base in the Philippines in 1966, whose squadrons were deployed on temporary duty travel across Southeast Asia, including South Vietnam. While there, Yeager flew 127 missions. After being assigned command of the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina in February 1968, he led the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II wing in South Korea during the Pueblo crisis, after the USS Pueblo was attacked and captured by North Korean forces on January 23rd, 1968.
Breaking the sound barrier at the age 0f 89.
On the 65th anniversary of breaking the sound barrier on October 14th 2012, Yeager did it again at the age of 89. He flew as co-pilot in a McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle, piloted by Captain David Vincent.
The rise from private to Brigadier general.
Between the years of 1941 and 1969, Yeager rose through the ranks, from private to Brigadier general. He received multiple personal decorations, including the Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Among his many recognitions and achievements, he was also awarded a Congressional Silver Medal — “equivalent to a noncombat Medal of Honor” — by President Gerald Ford on December 8th 1976.
“The first time I ever saw a jet, I shot it down.” Chuck Elwood Yeager, February 13th 1923 – December 7th 2020.
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