Chuck Yeager, who has died aged 97, stands alongside the Wright Brothers and Charles Lindbergh in the history of American aviation. In 1947 Yeager was the first person to break the sound barrier; and, in hitting Mach 1, he set the US on a path that was to lead to Neil Armstrong’s 1969 moon landing.
On the evening of Sunday 12 October 1947, Yeager, a 24-year-old US air force test pilot based at Muroc army air field in California, dined with his wife, Glennis, at Pancho’s bar and restaurant in the Mojave desert. Then the couple went horse-riding, but it was a moonless night and, racing against his wife, Yeager hit a gate, knocked himself out, and cracked two ribs. The pain took his breath away.
Two days later, Yeager was scheduled to fly the rocket-powered, orange-painted Bell X-1 plane nicknamed “Glamorous Glennis”, to Mach .97, just below Mach 1, the speed of sound. This was the sound barrier, which no aviator had crossed and lived to tell the tale. The British test pilot Geoffrey de Havilland had died 13 months earlier, when, close to the sound barrier, his DH108 jet disintegrated over the Thames.
Yeager told the project engineer Jack Ridley about the injury, which, crucially, prevented him from using his right hand to secure the X-1 hatch. Ridley sawed 10 inches off a broomstick and wedged it in the lock, so that Yeager would be able to operate it with his left hand.
That Tuesday morning, Yeager, inside the Glamorous Glennis, was dropped from the bomb-bay of a Boeing B29 Superfortress at 20,000ft, and took the X-1 to 42,000ft. The machmeter swung off the scale, a sonic boom rolled over the Mojave and, at Mach 1.05, 700mph, Yeager, in level flight, broke the sound barrier.
It was not until 10 June 1948 that the US finally announced its success, but Yeager was already soaring towards myth. The legend grew, culminating with secular canonisation in Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff (1979), a romance on the birth of the US space programme, on Yeager himself, and even on Pancho’s (and its foul-mouthed female proprietor, Florence “Pancho” Barnes). A movie of the same name followed in 1983, with Sam Shepard as Yeager.
It concluded with Yeager, 16 years on from his exploits in Harry Truman’s America, in the 1963 of JFK’s new frontier. Having taken his Lockheed NF-104A rocket-boosted jet to 108,700ft, more than 20 miles high, and to the edge of space, Yeager, out of control, has to bail out at 14,000ft and lands, badly burned, back in the Mojave – and out of record attempts. Away from The Right Stuff, some critics charged that the vastly experienced Yeager had simply ignored advice about the complexities of the new jet.
Yeager was a laconic Appalachian whose education ended with a high-school diploma. He was, he said in his autobiography Yeager (1985, with Leo Janos), “the guy who broke the sound barrier … the kid who swam the Mud River with a swiped watermelon, or shot the head off a squirrel before breakfast.” And he was also the guy who got patronised by “officers who looked down their noses at my ways and accent” or pegged him as “dumb” and “down-home”.
Yeager had picked up the X-1 job after a civilian test pilot, Slick Goodlin, had asked for $150,000 to attempt to break the sound barrier. Yeager flew for what was then his monthly USAF pay of $283. Yeager had been cheap, sneered some, and thus expendable.
The second of four children of Albert Yeager, a staunchly Republican gas driller, and his wife, Susie Mae (nee Sizemore), Chuck was born in Myra, West Virginia, the Mud River. His Dutch-German family – the surname was an anglicised version of Jäger (hunter) – had settled there in the 1800s.
By the time Chuck was five, the family were among the 600 inhabitants of nearby Hamlin. The young Yeager was a hunter – with superb eyesight – a sportsman, and not much of a scholar, but he did read Jack London. He had no interest in flying but he was good at acquiring practical knowledge – and his high-school graduation in summer 1941 came five months before Pearl Harbor.
When he left home his father advised him never to gamble or buy a pick-up truck that was not built by General Motors. He trained as an Army Air Corps mechanic, but by July 1942 he was flight training in California, where he met his wife-to-be, Glennis Dickhouse. Sixteen months later he was a non-commissioned officer with the 363rd Fighter Squadron based at Leiston, Suffolk – “three concrete runways surrounded by a sea of mud” – flying a North American P-51 Mustang. “The locals in the nearby village of Yoxford,” he recalled, “resented having 7,000 Yanks descend on them, their pubs and their women, and were rude and nasty.”
In combat from February 1944, Yeager had accounted for an Me-109, over Berlin, by early March, when, on his eighth mission, he was shot down near Bordeaux. Escaping via resistance networks to Spain, he was back in England by May, and resumed flying. Yeager ended his tour credited with shooting down 13 planes, including five victories in one mission. “The first time I ever saw a jet,” he said, “I shot it down.” It was a Messerschmitt Me 262, and he was the first in the 363rd to do so.
In 1945 he and Glennis married. Yeager joined the USAF test pilot school at Muroc (now known as Edwards Air Force Base), and in June 1947 he was enlisted in the X-1 programme, making his first powered flight – reaching Mach .85 – that August.
Controversy still reverberates around those days in October 1947. The Luftwaffe pilot Hans Guido Mutke, with rivets bursting from his Me 262 jet’s wings, may have accidentally broken the sound barrier over Austria in April 1945. And on 1 October and 14 October 1947 – at Muroc and latterly 15 minutes before Yeager – the test pilot George Welch, diving his XP-86 Sabre jet, probably passed Mach 1. As for the X-1, its rocket engine was conceived in pre-war Greenwich Village, but the plane itself strongly resembled the British Miles M-52 jet, whose plans were shown to Bell in 1944. Cancelled in 1946, the M-52 would have been supersonic.
Yeager continued working on the X-1 and the X1A, in which he became the second man, after Scott Crossfield, to fly at twice the speed of sound, Mach 2.44, on 12 December 1953. He left Muroc in 1954 and in that decade and the 1960s, he held commands in Germany, France, Spain and the US. He spent four years from 1962 as commandant of the USAF’s aerospace research pilot school. Based in the Philippines, he flew Canberra bomber missions during the Vietnam war.
In the early 1970s he was a US adviser to the Pakistan air force. He retired in 1976 as a brigadier-general – his wife thought he should have made a full general. Subsequently he represented ACDelco (a General Motors company), lectured, worked as an aviation consultant, and continued to fly supersonic, and other, aircraft. Working with the Piper company he broke several flying records for light aircraft. He served, in 1986, on President Ronald Reagan’s Rogers commission into the space shuttle Challenger tragedy.
He was also a consultant on several Yeager-themed video games. In 2005 President George W Bush promoted him to major-general. His last supersonic flight, in 2012 commemorated the 65th anniversary of his breaking of the sound barrier. At the age of 89 he co-piloted a McDonnell Douglas F15 Eagle fighter out of Nellis air force base in southern Nevada.
He was showered with awards, and the airport in Charleston, West Virginia, is named after him.
Glennis died in 1990. In 2003 Yeager married Victoria D’Angelo. She and the four children of his first marriage survive him.
Chuck (Charles Elwood) Yeager, aviator, born 23 February 1923; died 7 December 2020