The Aviation World Mourns Chuck Yeager, Who Passed at 97

The first man to break the sound barrier, Chuck Yeager, and who undoubtedly had "the right stuff," died on December 7, 2020 at the age of 97.
Marcia Wendorf

Did you ever notice how all airline pilots sound the same? No matter what is going on, they all have the same laconic drawl: "Ladies and gentlemen, the right wing just fell off, but that'll give all of you sitting on that side of the plane a better view."

The reason for this is that pilots since the late 1940s have been imitating the one pilot who had the most "right stuff" — Chuck Yeager — who died on December 7, 2020, at the ripe old age of 97.

You can't take West Virginia out of the boy

Charles Yeager was born on Feb. 13, 1923, in Myra, West Virginia, deep in the heart of Appalachian hill country. As a child, Yeager shot squirrels and rabbits and skinned them for the family's dinners.

In September 1941, armed with his high school diploma, Yeager enlisted in the Army Air Forces, which was the precursor to today's U.S. Air Force. Yeager became an airplane mechanic. After tagging along with a maintenance officer who was flight-testing an airplane, Yeager decided to sign up for a flight training program.


Yeager's flight instructors immediately noticed that his eyesight, perhaps honed while hunting in the hills of West Virginia, was remarkable. In fact, Yeager was reported to have better than 20/20 vision - a major advantage in a dogfight. Also remarkable was his utter coolness under pressure. Yeager received his pilot's wings in March 1943, at the height of World War II, and was transferred to England where he flew P-51 Mustang aircraft in the European theater.

Chuck Yeager's WWII combat aircraft
Chuck Yeager's WWII combat aircraft Source: USAF/Wikimedia Commons

During Yeager's eighth mission, he was shot down over France. He managed to parachute safely into some woods, where he was picked up by the French resistance. They helped Yeager and another wounded pilot to cross the snowbound Pyrenees Mountains into neutral Spain, and he was then able to return to his base in England.

Flyers who had been shot down and rescued were not normally returned to combat duty; this was to prevent them from disclosing resistance groups if shot down again, but Yeager convinced his superiors to return him to flying. On October 12, 1944, Yeager was part of three fighter squadrons that were escorting heavy bombers on bombing runs over Bremen, Germany when they were attacked.

Yeager shot down five German planes, thus becoming an ace in just one day. The next month, he shot down an additional four planes, also all in one day, and he went on to down over 11 German planes in total.

Home from the war

After the war, Yeager and his beloved wife Glennis were assigned to the Muroc Army Air Base in the Mojave Desert in California. This was where the Army was testing its experimental aircraft, and the culture at Muroc was peculiar, to say the least.

Located in the high desert with scrub oak and Joshua trees for company, the military housing was little more than shacks, and the social life of the base revolved around a watering hole known as Pancho Barnes' Happy Bottom Riding Club.

One night, while riding home on horseback from that establishment, Yeager and Glennis decided to race. Yeager fell off his horse, breaking two ribs, however, he refrained from telling his superiors because he was in the middle of testing the Bell X-1 aircraft, the U.S.'s best hope for breaking the sound barrier. With each flight, the craft came closer to breaking the barrier. The broken ribs would have led to his removal from flight rotation, and the chance to be the first to fly faster than Mach 1.

That big ole wall in the sky

Up until 1947, the sound barrier had been just that, a barrier. No pilot or airplane had been able to break through that speed limit of 700 miles per hour (1,127 km per hour) due to shock waves emanating off a plane's wings and body. It was feared that the waves would tear the aircraft apart.

The Aviation World Mourns Chuck Yeager, Who Passed at 97
Yeager standing next to the cockpit of the Bell X-1 Source: U.S. Air Force

The bright orange, bullet-shaped X-1, which Yeager christened the "Glamorous Glennis" after his wife, was dropped from the bomb bay of a B-29 mother ship. To enter the X-1, the X-1 pilot would climb down into the bomb bay while the two planes were still attached, enter the craft, and close the hatch. However, the pain from his broken ribs made it impossible for Yeager to close the hatch.

On October 14, 1947, his friend and fellow aircraft mechanic Jack Ridley, broke off the top of a mop handle for Yeager to use as extra leverage to allow him to close the hatch. When the B-29 dropped the X-1 at a height of 23,000 feet (7,010 m), Yeager put the pedal to the metal and climbed to a height of 45,000 feet (13,700 m) while hitting Mach 1.05 (where Mach 1.0 is the speed of sound).

Back on the ground, observers heard a terrific boom and assumed that Yeager had "bought the farm" and crashed into the desert floor. In reality, they were witnesses to the first-ever sonic boom.

The Air Force immediately slapped a secrecy order on Yeager's achievement, however, in December 1947, Aviation Week magazine broke the story that the sound barrier had been breached, and the Air Force finally admitted as much in June 1948.

The cult of Edwards

In December 1949, Muroc was renamed Edwards Air Force Base, and it became the nation's premier aviation research and testing facility. It was where NASA began looking for its first crop of astronauts, The Mercury 7.

The Mercury 7 astronauts
The Mercury 7 astronauts Source: NASA

Perhaps because he didn't have a college degree, Yeager was consistently overlooked during the astronaut recruitment process, but he still had a lot to prove. On November 20, 1953, the U.S. Navy's D-558-II Skyrocket aircraft and pilot Scott Crossfield flew at twice the speed of sound.

Yeager and Ridley decided to go after that record, and on December 12, 1953, Yeager flew the X-1's successor, the X-1A, at Mach 2.44 or 2.44 times the speed of sound, thus preventing Crossfield from being called "the fastest man alive." Yeager also set a new altitude record of 74,700 feet (22,769 m).

It was at that altitude, where there is very little left of the Earth's atmosphere, that the X-1A lost maneuverability and began a deadly flat spin. Yeager fought the controls as the plane dropped 51,000 feet (16,000 m) in less than a minute before regaining control and landing safely.

In the fall of 1953, in what the U.S. undoubtedly considered one of its greatest coups, a North Korean defector flew his MiG-15 Russian-built fighter jet to South Korea. It was moved to Okinawa, Japan, and the Air Force needed someone to test the capabilities of the airplane. They selected Chuck Yeager, who took the plane aloft and wrung her out.

In 1962, Yeager was named commander of the flight school at Edwards Air Force Base, which was a training ground not only for test pilots, but also for prospective astronauts. Yeager's tenure as commander was not without conflict, when an African-American astronaut candidate named Edward Dwight Jr., accused Yeager of racism and sabotaging his career.

During the Vietnam War, Yeager, who was by then a colonel, flew 127 missions, bombing positions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In 1975, Yeager retired from the Air Force with the rank of brigadier general. During his career, he had received the following decorations: the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Bronze Star. In 1985, Yeager received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.

"The Right Stuff"

In 1979, author Tom Wolfe published his enormously popular book, The Right Stuff and it made Chuck Yeager a household name. Four years later, director Philip Kaufman released the movie "The Right Stuff" starring Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager.

Chuck Yeager in 2000
Chuck Yeager in 2000 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Yeager himself told the New York Times that instead of feeling like he had "the right stuff", instead, he had worked really hard: "All I know is I worked my tail off learning to learn how to fly, and worked hard at it all the way. If there is such a thing as the right stuff in piloting, then it is experience. The secret to my success was that somehow I always managed to live to fly another day."

In 1986, Yeager was part of the Rogers Commission that investigated the explosion of Space Shuttle Challenger. On October 14, 2012, the 65th anniversary of his breaking of the sound barrier, 89-year-old Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier again, this time flying as co-pilot in a McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle.

Chuck Yeager MD F-15 Eagle flight
Chuck Yeager MD F-15 Eagle flight Source: Master Sgt. Jason W. Edwards/ U.S. Air Force

Chuck Yeager's legacy

In 1986, Chuck Yeager authored his autobiography, entitled, Yeager: An Autobiography. Yeager Airport in Charleston, West Virginia, is named in his honor, as is the Interstate 64/Interstate 77 bridge over the Kanawha River in Charleston. Part of US Highway 119 is named the Yeager Highway.

The Aviation World Mourns Chuck Yeager, Who Passed at 97
"Glamorous Glennis" at Smithsonian Air and Space Museum Source: Tim Evanson/Wikimedia Commons

Chuck Yeager is survived by three of his four children and by his second wife, Victoria Scott D'Angelo (Glennis died of ovarian cancer in 1990 and Yeager remarried in 2003). You can see the Glamorous Glennis displayed at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

So, the next time you hear your airline pilot sounding like he's sitting on a porch in an Appalachian Mountain "holler" and chewing on a piece of hay, you'll know why. It's because he, or she too, has "the right stuff."

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