World War II ace, test pilot, and pioneer in aviation endurance and speed records.
Charles Elwood “Chuck” Yeager was born in 1923 in Myra, West Virginia. After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in September, 1941, to be a mechanic, a job at which he had had previous experience. After his induction, he was further trained for work on airplanes. He became a crew chief, servicing airplanes and overhauling their engines. He eventually decided to try to become a pilot. On December 4, 1941, he took a physical and was called up for training six months later.
Yeager first rode in an airplane in the spring of 1942. He was commissioned as a reserve flight officer on March 10, 1943, at Luke Field, Arizona. His first assignment was as a P-39 pilot with the 363d Fighter Squadron in Tonopah, Nevada. He trained at various bases in the United States before being sent overseas to England in November, 1943.
Yeager eventually served as a fighter pilot in the fighter command of the Eighth Air Force stationed in England. Based at Leiston, Suffolk, England, he flew P-51’s in combat against Germany. He shot down an Me-109 and an He-111K before being shot down on his eighth combat mission over German-occupied France on March 5, 1944. Although he was wounded, he managed to parachute safely to the ground. With the help of a French farmer and the French Resistance, known as the Marquis, Yeager made his way to Spain and eventually back to England to rejoin his fighter unit. At first he was told that he could no longer fly missions over Europe because, if shot down again and captured by the Germans, he might be tortured by the Gestapo into giving away secrets of the French Marquis and then shot. Yeager pleaded his case to General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Shortly thereafter, the Marquis began openly fighting the Germans, so General Eisenhower decided in Yeager’s favor. On October 12, 1944, Yeager shot down five enemy aircraft in one day, became an ace, and subsequently received the Silver Star. Between July and October, 1944, he was promoted from second lieutenant to captain.
Yeager flew a total of sixty-four missions over Europe and shot down thirteen German planes. In February, 1945, he returned to the United States, and on February 26, 1945, he married Glennis Faye Dickhouse, whom he had met in California, in his parents’ home in Hamlin, West Virginia. He subsequently went to Edwards Air Force Base in California and became a test pilot.
On October 14, 1947, over California’s Rogers Dry Lake, Yeager became the first person to break the sound barrier, riding the Bell X-1 airplane, attached to the belly of a B-29 bomber, to an altitude of 25,000 feet. He released the aircraft from the B-29 and rocketed to an altitude of 40,000 feet, safely taking the X-1 to a speed of Mach 1.07, or 670 miles per hour, faster than the speed of sound at the altitude of 40,000 feet. No one had known whether a pilot could successfully control a plane under the battering effects of the shock waves produced as a plane’s speed neared Mach 1. After keeping Yeager’s record a secret for eight months, the Air Force finally announced it in June, 1948.
During the next two years, Yeager flew the X-1 thirty-three times, reaching a maximum speed of 957 miles per hour, or Mach 1.45, and an altitude of 70,000 feet. He was the first and only American to make a ground takeoff in a rocket-powered X-plane. In December, 1953, Yeager flew the Bell X-1A at a speed of 1,650 miles per hour, or Mach 2.44, a record that still stands for straight-winged aircraft.
Yeager continued to make test flights for the Air Force. On December 12, 1953, in an X-1A rocket plane, he set a world speed record of 1,650 miles per hour. In 1954, after nine years at Edwards Air Force Base, Yeager left his post as assistant chief of test-flight operations at Edwards to join the staff of the Twelfth Air Force in what was then West Germany, becoming an F-86 squadron commander.
In 1962 Yeager returned to Edwards Air Force Base as a colonel to command the Aerospace Research Pilot School. During this time he trained to break the world speed record again, in an NF-104 fighter-interceptor. In a practice flight, Yeager’s plane went into a spin and fell from an altitude of more than 100,000 feet. He survived only by ejecting, and, despite safely parachuting into the desert, he was badly burned. It was his last attempt to break the speed record.
In 1968, Yeager took command of the Fourth Tactical Fighter Wing. He retired from the Air Force in 1975 at the rank of brigadier general. Even after his retirement from the Air Force, Yeager continued to set world aviation records for private passenger jet planes.
Levinson, Nancy Smiler. Chuck Yeager: The Man Who Broke the Sound Barrier. New York: Walker, 1995. A biography of the Air Force test pilot who in 1947 was the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound. Stein, Richard Conrad. Chuck Yeager Breaks the Sound Barrier. Danbury, Conn.: Children’s Press, 1997. A volume written for young readers describing how the young Chuck Yeager distinguished himself in World War II and subsequently became the first person to break the sound barrier. Yeager, Chuck. Yeager: An Autobiography. New York: Bantam Books, 1986. A volume recounting Yeager’s life, from his West Virginia boyhood to his becoming an Air Force general. Yeager, Chuck, and Charles Leerhsen. Press On! Further Adventures in the Good Life. New York: Macmillan Library Reference, 1990. A rambling but entertaining mix of Yeager’s reminiscences, including stories of his childhood in the backwoods of West Virginia, practical advice for lovers of the outdoors, and many good stories.
Air Force, U.S.
World War II
On October 14, 1947, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in a Bell X-1 airplane.