Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Chuck Yeager: The combat pilot who broke the sound barrier with two broken ribs

Col. Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager at Edwards Air Force Base in California, where he commanded the Test Pilot School in 1962.

 There aren’t many giants in American life, and on Monday we lost another. Chuck Yeager, the first man to travel faster than the speed of sound, died in his home at the age of 97. 

In 1947, Yeager, a young Air Force pilot from the little town of Hamlin, W.Va., was chosen to fly a rocket-propelled plane, the Bell XS-1, on a supersonic flight over the Mojave Desert. On October 14 he flew the plane, which he named Glamorous Glennis after his wife, at a speed of Mach 1.06—700 miles per hour. The night before he had broken two ribs by falling off a horse, and he could barely reach up to seal the hatch, but only his wife and a close friend knew about it.

In a 1985 memoir, Yeager famously expressed his sense of disappointment at crossing the threshold of sound and creating the world’s first sonic boom. “And that was it,” he wrote. “After all the anticipation to achieve this moment, it really was a let-down.”

But by then he had defied death more often than anybody knew. As a pilot in World War II, Yeager shot down at least 13 enemy fighters. He once downed five German aircraft in a single day. Yeager was shot down himself over France, but made it across the Pyrenees and into Spain, sometimes disguised as a peasant and carrying a wounded companion. When the war ended, Captain Yeager was 22. 

He led missions in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, too, and spent a well-earned retirement giving speeches and conducting himself with decency and honor. Chuck Yeager was an American of an older, rarer kind: ready to take a risk for his country, courageous beyond measure, utterly without pretense.

Chuck Yeager, the first aviator to break the sound barrier, in front of the rocket-powered Bell X-1E plane in 1985.

The Wall Street Journal 
By Andy Pasztor
Updated December 8th, 2020 12:27 am ET

Chuck Yeager, a folksy, hard-living daredevil who was the first aviator to break the sound barrier and became a symbol of bravery for generations of test pilots, astronauts and average Americans, died Monday at the age of 97.

The announcement, posted on his official Twitter account by his wife, Victoria, didn’t provide any details. Writing that he died around 9 p.m. Eastern time, she said: “An incredible life well lived, America’s greatest Pilot, & a legacy of strength, adventure, & patriotism will be remembered forever.”

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who became friends with Gen. Yeager, called him a native son who “was larger than life and an inspiration for generations of Americans.”

A West Virginia native whose maverick streak didn’t keep him from becoming an Air Force general, Gen. Yeager personified the thrill-seeking fraternity of flyboys that moved the U.S. into the jet age after World War II and later vaulted it toward space exploration.

As a brash 24-year-old, he left an indelible mark on history in October 1947 when his Bell X-1 rocketplane—named “Glamorous Glennis” after his first wife—was released from its mother ship and, spewing 6,000 pounds of thrust, accelerated as it climbed. For some 18 seconds, with Gen. Yeager and his ground crew in virtual disbelief, it flew faster than the speed of sound roughly 8 miles above Southern California’s Muroc Field, later known as Edwards Air Force Base.

Accomplishing a feat that hordes of aviation experts and even many fellow pilots feared was impossible (pilots called it exploring  “ugh-known” territory) Gen. Yeager succeeded despite a pair of broken ribs suffered in a horseback-riding accident two days earlier. Reflecting his pluck and contrarian nature, he kept his injuries secret from superiors and used part of a broom as a makeshift handle to ease the pain of closing the cockpit hatch. Both the experimental craft and its mission, following eight preparatory efforts, were so secret that official acknowledgment and celebration of the record-breaking flight didn’t occur until more than a year later.  Five years after that, Gen. Yeager set another record for flying at 1,650 miles per hour, or twice the speed of sound.

Gen. Yeager’s small-town personality and grace under pressure—immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s classic book “The Right Stuff”—made him a global celebrity, akin to aerospace icons such as Charles Lindbergh, who conquered the Atlantic in a solo flight, and Neil Armstrong, who was first to step on the lunar surface. President Harry S. Truman honored him at the White House, presenting a trophy calling the X-1 flight “an epochal achievement” that was “the greatest since the first successful flight” of the Wright Brothers.

Mr. Wolfe, who helped make Gen. Yeager a cultural superstar more than three decades later, wrote that “every hot pilot in the country” pined to follow the example of the X-1 “if you wanted to reach the top.”

Like his famous predecessors, Gen. Yeager largely eschewed the limelight in later years, though at one point he served as an advertising spokesman for spark plugs and batteries on television.

Over time, his influence on aviation remained so strong that even now some airline pilots subconsciously tend to mimic his terse, staccato drawl during radio transmissions.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration head Jim Bridenstine, who recalled that as a young military aviator he admired Gen. Yeager, released a statement calling “Chuck’s bravery and accomplishments” a “testament to the enduring strength that made him a true American original.” The agency, Mr. Bridenstine added, “owes much to his brilliant contributions to aerospace science.”

A World War II ace who later in his career went on to head a training outfit that prepared some of the first astronauts, he ridiculed reliance on automation demanded by the rigors of space flights—claiming a chimp could perform the necessary maneuvers.  He rejected becoming an astronaut, Gen. Yeager famously explained, because he didn’t want to fly anything “where you have to sweep the monkey crap off the seat before you get in.”

Despite all his accomplishments, the wiry kid who grew up sharpshooting squirrels in the hollows of Appalachia refused to fit the more cerebral, self-controlled mold that came to be exemplified by NASA astronauts. In his first powered X-1 flight, Gen. Yeager executed an unauthorized roll and near-vertical climb. Other violations of protocols and flight plans were legendary, just like his impatience with engineering analyses that delayed test flight schedules.

His wisecracks and volatile personality alienated some early space pioneers, including astronaut Thomas Stafford, who never flew or trained with Gen. Yeager, but recalled stories that circulated around Edwards years afterward regarding colorful exploits inside and outside the cockpit.

“He had a reputation as a wise-ass with a huge super ego,” the retired Air Force general said in a 2016 interview. After ejecting from an experimental F-104 rocket plane that was diving and spinning toward the ground, Gen. Stafford recalled, Gen. Yeager argued with engineers and other test pilots who criticized him for failing to keep the nose at the correct angle while seeking a world altitude record. “Yeager kept insisting he had enough airspeed to fly through it,” according to Gen. Stafford, who concluded the flawed logic defied the laws of aerodynamics.

In his autobiography, Gen. Yeager blamed a malfunction for the accident, which burned part of his face and hands. Air Force investigators subsequently criticized Gen. Yeager for “purposely exceeding” recommended procedures “in order to attain a higher altitude.”  Nonetheless, his reputation for phenomenal concentration, cockpit reflexes and courage continued to grow.

While college degrees were routine in the astronaut corps, Gen. Yeager’s high-school diploma and seat-of-the-pants approach disqualified him. But in his autobiography published in 1985, Gen. Yeager didn’t hide his cocky attitude about inherent piloting skills. “I don’t deny that I was damned good,” he wrote. “If there’s such a thing as ‘the best,’ I was at least one of the title contenders,” he asserted, adding he “enjoyed just about every damned minute” of his adventures “because that’s how I lived.”

Born in Myra, W. Va., on Feb. 13, 1923, Charles Elwood Yeager was the second of five children whose father worked as a natural-gas driller and a railroad worker. He reveled in hunting and tramping through the woods, but in high school was considered a mediocre or poor student in most subjects.

He enlisted in the Army in the fall of 1941, first working as a mechanic and then winning his wings as a fighter pilot. He was shot down over France and evaded capture with the help of the French underground. Bucking Pentagon brass, he personally persuaded the Supreme Allied Commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, to reinstate him to flight duty and ended up logging 60 combat sorties with more than a dozen verified “kills” in dogfights.

As an Air Force test pilot once World War II ended, he flew dozens of different airplane models—including a Russian-built fighter the Pentagon wanted to better understand—and lived through several harrowing near-crashes.  When Gen. Yeager was promoted to major and took charge of a fighter squadron in West Germany at the height of the Cold War in 1955, according to his autobiography, he assumed “the Air Force had decided I’d had enough” close calls.

He retired with the rank of brigadier general in 1975.  Gen. Yeager married a woman 41 years his junior after the death of his first wife in 1990, prompting a tabloid-style legal battle with his children. He continued to fly private planes, hunt, fish and make honorary appearances past the age of 90. He spent many of his last years in the bucolic northern California community of Grass Valley, near the Nevada border in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The 50th anniversary of his historic accomplishment breaking the sound barrier, Gen. Yeager, then a beaming 74, piloted an F-15 fighter, dubbed “Glennis III,” past Mach 1, again surpassing the speed of sound in his last official Air Force flight. “All that I am … I owe to the Air Force,” he said in a speech to the crowd.


  1. A West Virginian, huh? Not a boy of the coasts or liberal bastions? Bucked authority and held to his own conventions? Exceeded expectations and excelled at life? Hmm...

    It'll be of interest to see how his passing is received by our liberal media. Glad to have read this piece by Andy Pasztor.

    Godspeed General fair winds and following seas.

    1. The DNC complex fraud news media reporting about this? Are you kidding? We've had to go to conservative domestic news and foreign news sources to get not only national news but global news ever since Trump decisively beat Hillary in the 2016 election. Four plus years of 7x24 Trump hate news. The good news is that where our so-called main stream news has failed us, others like OANN and NewsMax News on cable will continue to fill the void. Of course we've always had our talk radio shows and Conservative websites (that the left wants to shut down like good little brown shirts).

  2. Rest in peace General Yeager. You lived in the best of times in America and checked out before the current generation could cancel you. After all, you insulted monkeys!

  3. What a life!

    And his life was apparently problem free - Not a single mention of needing a dog to hold, being unable to handle the stress of an 11 am class, living with his parents until age 36, that he took money from the GI Bill and spent it visiting Thailand, or that he was confused over which restroom to use.

  4. I'll add; he need no pronouns before his name and he knew which bathroom to use.

  5. When the war ended, Captain Yeager was 22.

    Meanwhile, Pajama Boy is trying to navigate his way out of Mom and Dad's basement.

  6. When men were men and women were glad of it.

  7. What a man, what a life. Again, of the generation who made America the most powerful and the most egalitarian nation in the world.
    And don't kid yourself; we still have such men and women today in our Armed Forces. They may be few, but they have the tools to defend us, if only politicians get out of the way.
    Chuck is lucky to this point; he hasn't been cancelled yet for being an oppressor or some such nonsense. May you rest in peace General Yeager, and I hope any statues erected in your honor wait until this current cultural malaise ceases in this country.
    Don't ask the Squad who he is or what he accomplished; they are too busy selling T-shirts.
    What will it take to wake up the complacent, the embarrassed, the apologetic, about our national accomplishments and might? Another Pearl Harbor? Another 911?

  8. Part of "the greatest generation" which now days vs the me generation who won't wear a mask to protect them.

  9. Men without Chests
    In his book, The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis was prophetic in pointing out that relativism—the idea that there are no absolute truths—would lead to the decay of morality and a lack of virtue within society. Without a belief in and the teaching of universal moral laws, we fail to educate the heart and are left with intelligent men who behave like animals or as Lewis puts it, “Men without Chests.”

    Yeager represented one of the last men on earth who was not a man without a chest.
    Our culture now calls men like him as being "toxic"; of being guilty of "toxic masculinity."
    God have mercy on America.

  10. He visited my fighter squadron in 1974 to keep pilot's moral up. The Vietnam Nam war had lost a generation of fighter pilots to its political disaster. He had a way of encouraging you to not give up. Down home, aw shucks, don't worry about stuff you can't control. Do your duty, fly your airplane and try to be the best. A great man.