Chuck Yeager, the most famous test pilot of his generation, who was the first to break the sound barrier and, thanks to Tom Wolfe, embodied the death-defying aviator who had the elusive but unmistakable “right stuff”, died on Monday in Los Angeles. He was 97 years old.
His death in a hospital was announced on his official Twitter account and confirmed by a family friend, John Nicoletti.
General Yeager came from the hills of West Virginia with just a high school education and a train that confused many fellow pilots. The first time he got on a plane, he had a stomach problem.
But he became a combat ace in World War II, killing five German planes in a single day for a total of 13. In the following ten years he ushered in the age of military jets and space travel. He flew more than 150 military aircraft and logged more than 10,000 hours in the air.
His signal was reached on October 14, 1947, when he stepped out of a B-29 bomber as it rose over the Mojave Desert in California and entered the cockpit of an orange, spherical, rocket-propelled test aircraft that was at the bomb bay.
At the time, he was an Air Force captain and zoomed in on the aircraft, a Bell Aircraft X-1, at an altitude of 23,000 feet. When it reached about 43,000 feet above the desert, the first sonic boom in history echoed across the bottom of the dry lake beds. It had reached a speed of 700 miles per hour, broken the sound barrier, and dispelled the long-held fear that any aircraft flying at or above the speed of sound would be ripped apart by shock waves.
“After all the anticipation of reaching this moment, it was truly a disappointment,” wrote General Yeager in his best-selling memoir “Yeager” (1985, with Leo Janos). “There should have been a bump in the road, something that lets you know you’ve just punched a nice, clean hole through the sound barrier. The Ughknown was a push by Jell-O. I later realized that this mission was bound to end in disappointment because the real barrier was not in the sky, but in our knowledge and experience of supersonic flights. “
Nonetheless, along with the Wright brothers’ first flight in Kitty Hawk in 1903 and Charles Lindbergh’s solo fight to Paris in 1927, the exploit was an epic event in aviation history. In 1950 General Yeager’s YX aircraft, which he named in honor of his wife Glamorous Glennis, was on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
His performance made General Yeager headlines for a while, but it wasn’t until after the 1979 publication of Mr. Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff, about the beginnings of the space program, and the release of the film based on it four years later, in the General Yeager was played by Sam Shepard. In the opening scene he was shown breaking the sound barrier.
In his portrayal of NASA’s Mercury Program astronauts, Mr. Wolfe wrote of the test pilot brotherhood in the California desert after World War II and their notion that “a man should have the ability to step up and set his hide in a frenzied piece of machinery on the line and then the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness to pull it back at the last yawning moment – and then go up again the next day and the next day and every next day. “
That quality, understood but unspoken, Wolfe added, would entitle a pilot to be part of the “Brotherhood of the Right Things Itself”.
Mr Wolfe wrote about a pilot’s casualness in the face of an emergency in a voice “specifically of Appalachian origin,” which was first heard in military circles but ultimately came from the cockpits of commercial aircraft.
“It was,” said Mr. Wolfe, “the move of the fairest of all owners of the right material: Chuck Yeager.”
In his memoir, General Yeager said he was upset when people asked him if he had the right stuff because he believed it implied a talent he was born with.
“All I know is that I put my tail down to learn to fly and worked hard all the way,” he wrote. “If there is such a thing as the right thing with a pilot, it is experience. The secret of my success was that somehow I always managed to live another day to fly. “
Charles Elwood Yeager was born on February 13, 1923 in Myra, West Virginia, the second of five children to Albert and Susie Mae (Sizemore) Yeager. He grew up in nearby Hamlin, a town of around 400, where his father was drilling for natural gas in the coal fields. When he was 6 years old, Chuck shot squirrels and rabbits and skinned them for family dinners to enjoy the life of a country boy.
He joined the Army Air Forces in September 1941 after graduating from high school and became an aircraft mechanic. One day he took a ride with a maintenance officer, tested an aircraft he’d been servicing, and immediately threw himself over the back seat. But he took part in a crew flight program in July 1942, thinking it would get him out of the kitchen and do guard duty. He received his pilot’s wings and his appointment as flight officer in March 1943 at a base in Arizona and was made a lieutenant for training on his arrival in England.
When General Yeager was asked on Twitter in 2016 why he wanted to become a pilot, the answer was filled with cheeky ease: “I was in maintenance, saw that pilots had beautiful girls in their arms and no dirty hands. I applied.”
He possessed a natural coordination and ability to understand the mechanical system of an airplane along with the coolness under pressure. He enjoyed spins and dives and loved doing mock dogfights with his classmates.
He flew P-51 Mustang fighter in the European theater during World War II and in March 1944, on his eighth mission, he was shot down by a German fighter aircraft over France and thrown into forests with leg and head injuries. But he was hidden by members of the French underground, reached neutral Spain by climbing the snow-capped Pyrenees, carrying a seriously wounded airman, and returned to his base in England.
Crashed pilots were generally not returned to combat, but his requests to see the action again were granted. On October 12, 1944, while leading three fighter squadrons escorting bombers over Bremen, he crashed five German planes and became an ace in one day. In November, he shot down four more planes in one day.
After the war, General Yeager was assigned to Muroc Army Air Base, California, where hot-shot pilots tested prototype jets. He was chosen over senior pilots to fly the Bell X-1 to break the sound barrier, and when he set out to do it, he was barely able to move after breaking two ribs in a crash a few nights earlier a fence while running with his wife on horseback in the desert.
The Air Force kept the feat a secret, a result of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, but in December 1947 Aviation Week magazine revealed that the sound barrier had been broken. The Luftwaffe finally confirmed it in June 1948.
But with Muroc, life went on similarly. The pilots and their families had quarters that were hardly better than huts, the days were hot and the nights cold, and the landscape was barren. The pilots flew into the Pancho Barnes Bar day and night.
In December 1949, Muroc was renamed Edwards Air Force Base and became a center for advanced aeronautical research that led to the space program. In December 1953, General Yeager flew the X-1A aircraft at almost two and a half times the speed of sound after barely surviving a turn, and set a world speed record.
In the fall of 1953 he was sent to an air base on Okinawa in the Pacific to test a Russian-built MiG-15 fighter that had been flown into American hands by a North Korean defector. He was battling stormy weather as he took the plane up and analyzed its strengths and weaknesses. In 1962 he became the commanding officer of the Edwards School that trained aspiring astronauts.
He commanded a fighter wing while holding the rank of colonel during the Vietnam War and flew 127 missions, mostly piloting Martin B-57 light bombers to attack enemy forces and their supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail .
After serving as head of aerospace security for the Air Force, he retired in 1975 as a brigadier general. His awards included the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Bronze Star. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the country, from President Ronald Reagan in 1985.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine described the death of General Yeager in a statement as “an enormous loss to our nation”. Astronaut Scott Kelly, who wrote on Twitter, called him “a true legend”.
General Yeager became a familiar face in commercials and appeared in numerous public appearances. He flew F-15 planes and broke the sound barrier again on the 50th and 55th anniversary of his pioneer flight. To commemorate the 65th anniversary, he was a passenger on an F-15 plane when he broke the sound barrier again.
His first wife, the former Glennis Dickhouse, with whom he had four children, died in 1990. He married Victoria D’Angelo in 2003. He is survived by his wife; two daughters, Susan Yeager and Sharon Yeager Flick; and a son, Don. Another son, Michael, died in 2011.
In his memoir, General Yeager wrote that throughout his years as a pilot he had taken care to “learn all about my aircraft and emergency equipment.”
It may not match his picture, but as he put it, “I was always scared of dying. Always.”
Mike Ives and Neil Vigdor contributed to the coverage.