Chuck Yeager, The First Pilot To Break the Sound Barrier

AP Photo/Michel Lipchitz

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Charles Elwood Yeager, better known as Chuck Yeager is a World War II veteran, decorated flight pilot, as well as the record holder for being the first human to break the sound barrier. His career spanned for 70 years and today the legend is 96 years old, and believe it or not, on Twitter.

Air Force Career

Born in 1923, Charles E. Yeager was one of five children born to farming parents in Myra, West Virginia. His first encounters with the US military happened as a young teenager, the first time being at a Citizens Military Training Camp in Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indianapolis, Indiana. Within the next two years, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces. As a private, he worked as an aircraft mechanic at the George Air Force Base in California. Initially, he was told that he wasn’t eligible for flight training due to his age. This changed when the United States entered World War II. It was found that he had an exceptionally sharp vision and was a natural talent for flying.

While stationed in the UK, Yeager flew P-51 Mustangs and was even shot down over France. With the help of the French Resistance (Maquis), he was able to make it back to England. He did not return, however, before offering assistance to the resistance, helping them make bombs and even saving the life of an injured B-24 navigator. For this, he was awarded a Bronze Star. Most pilots who were shot down weren’t allowed to fly again over enemy territory, to reduce the possibility of recapture. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander allowed him to do so as a special case.

In addition to the resourcefulness needed to himself out of tough situations, Yeager demonstrated great combat leadership, as well. On October 12, 1944, he was the first pilot in his group to become “ace in a day,” having shot down five enemy aircrafts in a mission. Throughout his career, he moved up to second lieutenant and then captain. By 1945, he had taken 61 flights. The number of flight hours and his background in being an aircraft mechanic qualified him to become a test pilot.

Breaking the Sound Barrier

Post-WWII, Yeager remained in the Air Force working as a test pilot at what is now the Edwards Air Force Base. At the time it was the Muroc Army Air Field. Chuck Yeager was chosen to attempt the sound barrier flight after another test pilot demanded a million dollars to make the flight. It was a dangerous mission, but he accepted. Two days before the fight, he was injured falling off of a horse. He saw a civilian doctor and only told his wife and a fellow pilot about the injury so he wasn’t removed from the project.

On October 14, 1947,  Yeager became the first man to break the sound barrier, flying the Bell X-1 plane, Glamorous Glennis, that he named after his wife. He flew the aircraft at 45,0000 feet at a speed of 1.05 Mach, faster than the speed of sound, over the Mojave Desert. The X-1 from the flight was later added as a permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. Yeager won a Collier Trophy and a Mackay Trophy for his flight. He continued to break other altitude and speed records.

Present Day Yeager

After 33 years of active duty, the decorated pilot retired. He still flew occasionally, including a 2012 reenactment of his sound barrier-breaking flight. A cameo on The Right Stuff featured him as a bartender, which he felt was “fitting.” Sam Shepard played Yeager’s character in the film. His first wife, Glennis, passed away in 1990. Today, he and his second wife reside in Penn Valley, California near the General Chuck Yeager Foundation. You can learn more about him there, or by following him @GenChuckYeager on Twitter.

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