General Chuck Yeager
“The fastest man alive,” “the guy with the right stuff,” “Mr. Supersonic,” Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager has been called a lot of things in his more than 80 years, but none is more fitting than the title, “a true American.”
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Despite a youth in the poverty-stricken backwoods of West Virginia, Yeager became a fighter ace, a legendary test pilot, a leader of men, and an icon for generations, all while doing what he loved: flying. His is an American story, one that inspires us and teaches us to always look to the skies.
Born and raised in West Virginia, 18 year-old Chuck Yeager enlisted in the Army Air Corps in September 1941. He was serving as crew chief on an AT-11 when he was selected for pilot training under the flying sergeant program in July 1942.
Although he experienced “queasiness” the first couple of times he went up, he completed primary pilot training at Hemet, CA, followed by basic in BT-13s at Gardner Field in Taft, CA, and advanced training at Luke Field, AZ, where he earned his pilot’s wings with Class 43-C on 10 March 1943.He joined the 363rd Fighter Squadron as a non-commissioned flight officer at the Tonopah Bombing and Gunnery Range, NV, later that month and commenced training in fighter tactics in the Bell P-39 Airacobra. Many of the new pilots had a tough time transitioning to the P-39. “But not Yeager,” recalled his squadron mate and lifelong best friend, Col C.E. “Bud” Anderson. “Chuck became the yardstick by which we could measure the rest as they joined us, several each month. Yeager could fly. Right from the start, he was pretty impressive.” A component of the 357th Fighter Group, the 363rd continued training at a various stateside locations until November when the unit shipped out for England.
Yeager entered combat in February 1944 and claimed one Me 109 before being shot down on his eighth combat mission on 5 March. With the help of the French underground, he evaded capture and, after carrying his appeal to return to combat all the way up the chain to Supreme Allied Commander Gen Dwight D. Eisenhower, he resumed combat operations in August. Blessed with exceptional 20/10 vision, Yeager had eyes that could “see forever.” He combined this advantage with cunning, concentration, relentless ferocity and superb piloting skills to rack up a final total of 12.5 aerial victories—including five Me109s on 12 October and four FW 190s on 27 November. Of his 27 November experience, he recalled: "That day was a fighter pilot's dream. In the midst of a wild sky, I knew that dogfighting was what I was born to do."
Yeager was ultimately promoted to captain during his tour in the European theater and, when he completed his final flight on 15 January 1945, he had totaled 64 combat missions for 270 hours. The P-51B, -C and -D Mustangs he flew in combat were all named in honor of his fiancee, Glennis Faye Dickhouse, whom he married when he returned stateside in February 1945.
After a short stint as a flight instructor at Perrin Field, TX, Yeager was assigned as assistant maintenance officer in the Fighter Section of the Flight Test Division at Wright Field, OH. He was at the right place, at the right time. Wright Field was the center of Army Air Forces R&D and, since it was his job to check out all aircraft coming out of maintenance, he got to fly almost every fighter on the flight line. He demonstrated such exceptional skill that he was selected to fly in air shows and, in September 1945, he made his first trip to Muroc Army Air Field (now Edwards AFB) where he flew accelerated service trials on the new P-80A Shooting Star, America's first operational jet fighter. Considered the father of modern Air Force flight test, Col Albert Boyd was chief of the Flight Test Division. Tough and absolutely unyielding in his standards, he was trying to build a cadre of test pilots that could set industry-wide standards for the profession. Under his scrutiny, only the very best pilots were selected to enter the new test pilot school at Wright Field. After closely observing and flying with Yeager, Boyd handpicked him for the school in January 1946. With only a high school education, he was challenged by the advanced academics but managed to graduate.“Because of my flying ability,” he later explained "they took mercy on my academics.” In June 1947, Colonel Boyd made one of the most important decisions of his career when he chose one of his most junior test pilots to make the attempt to become the first person to exceed the speed of sound in the rocket-powered Bell X-1. He chose Yeager because he considered him the best “instinctive” pilot he had ever seen and he had demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to remain calm and focused in stressful situations. The X-1 program certainly promised to be stressful; many experts believed the so-called “sound barrier” was impenetrable. Yeager and the rest of the small Air Force test team met at Muroc in late July.
After three glide flights in the X-1, he flew it to a speed of 0.85 Mach on his first powered flight on 29 August. He encountered severe buffeting and sudden nose-up and -down trim changes during his next six flights. Then, during his eighth flight on 10 Oct., he lost pitch control altogether, as a shock wave formed along the hingeline of the X-1’s elevator. He reached Mach 0.997 that day but, without pitch control, it would have been foolhardy to proceed. Fortunately, the X-1 had been designed with a moving horizontal tail and Capt Jack Ridley convinced Yeager that, by changing its angle of incidence in small increments, he could control the craft without having to rely on the elevator.
This had never been attempted at extremely high-speeds but Yeager was game to give it a try on the next flight. On 14 Oct., he dropped away from the B-29, fired all four chambers of his engine in rapid sequence and bolted away from the launch aircraft. Accelerating upward, he shut down two chambers and tested the moveable tail as his Machmeter registered numbers of 0.83, 0.88 and 0.92. Moved in small increments, it provided effective control. He reached an indicated Mach number of 0.92 as he leveled out at 42,000 feet and relit a third chamber of his engine. The X-1 rapidly accelerated to 0.98 Mach and then, at 43,000 feet, the needle on his Machmeter jumped off the scale.
Chuck Yeager had just crossed the invisible threshold to flight faster than the speed of sound. He attained a top speed of Mach 1.06 (700 mph). When Yeager’s achievement was finally declassified in June of 1948, he was quickly accorded celebrity status. “The Fastest Man Alive,” he was awarded the most prestigious honors in aviation. The words accompanying the Collier Trophy aptly summarized the magnitude of his flight: “This is an epochal achievement in the history of world aviation–the greatest since the first successful flight of the original Wright Brothers’ airplane, forty-five years ago.”
While his flights in the X-1 guaranteed celebrity, it was Yeager’s performance over the next seven years that earned him pre-eminence–indeed, legendary status– within his own peer group, the experimental test pilots at Edwards. Yeager has called these years his “golden age of flying and fun.” It was an age when the limits of time, space and the imagination were being dramatically expanded. And Edwards AFB was the place to be, the place where a whole stable of exotic research aircraft were probing the unknowns of flight and where new experimental prototypes appeared on the flight line in seemingly endless numbers.
Chuck Yeager was in the middle of it, loving every minute. He became the test pilot of choice among engineers because he flew with such extraordinary precision that his data points were always right on target. He also demonstrated an unrivaled ability to quickly ferret out and understand an airplane’s flaws. Flying constantly at the edge of the envelope . . . and then beyond, at a time when accidents were far more common than they are today, Yeager repeatedly demonstrated an uncanny ability to coolly think his way through potentially catastrophic situations, take appropriate action, and bring his ship back.
From 27 September to 5 October 1953, Yeager was at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. General Boyd was, by this time, commander of the Wright Air Development Center and he had requested that Yeager and Maj Tom Collins join him there so they could perform a complete evaluation of the first Russian MiG 15 to come into American hands. Yeager considered this “the most demanding assignment” he had faced up to that point in time. Under an extremely tight schedule, in wretched weather, he had to wring out what he called a “flying booby trap”–an unforgiving craft, susceptible to unexpected pitch-ups, fatal spins, and a host of other problems.
He met the challenge, as he took the fighter up to more than 55,000 feet and, despite the fact that he knew he’d lose elevator control, he subsequently put it into a near vertical dive to achieve its 0.98 maximum Mach number. The tests confirmed that although the F-86 was a superior fighter, overall, the MiG had the advantage in terms of rate of climb, higher ceiling and better acceleration. General Boyd later reported: “The flight tests of the Russian MiG really demonstrated what Chuck Yeager was made of. It was extremely dangerous work, flying in horrible weather . . . Because of him, we now know more about this airplane than the Russians do.”
After launch on 12 December 1953, Yeager lit his rocket engine in the Bell X-1A and pulled into a climb. At 62,000 feet, he started his pushover and finally leveled out at 76,000 feet and Mach 1.9. Using full thrust, he accelerated to Mach 2.44 (1650 mph). After he cut his engine, the X-1A started a slow roll and yaw to the left. As he corrected for this, it rolled sharply to the right. Another correction and it snapped to the left and tumbled violently out of control. He was encountering something new–something called inertia coupling.
The X-1A was “snapping and rolling and spinning” about all three axes and he took a beating in the cockpit as he plummeted more than 50,000 feet before somehow managing to recover to level flight at 25,000 feet.
In 1954, Yeager returned to operational flying as he took over command of the 417th Fighter Bomber Squadron. A component of the 50th Fighter Bomber Wing, his unit was first stationed at Hahn Air Base, in Germany, and then Toul-Rosiere, in France. The squadron flew F-86H Sabres and transitioned from air defense to a tactical nuclear mission while under his command. Selected to lead the wing’s team in all the European gunnery meets, Yeager typically won top individual honors in these events and ultimately led the team to victories in the U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) championships in 1955 and 1956.
Yeager may have arrived in Europe as a legendary test pilot but he has always considered himself, first and foremost, to be a fighter pilot and his dogfighting skills remained sharp. One of his squadron pilots recalled that, when he arrived, “there was a helluva line of eager young pilots anxious to jump our new squadron commander and see what he was made of. Testing Yeager turned out to be a massacre. He waxed everybody, and with such ease it was shameful. The word got around that he was somebody very special.” Yeager returned to California’s high desert when he took over command of the 1st Fighter Day Squadron at George AFB in 1957.
Flying the new supersonic F-100 Super Sabres, the 1st was considered one of the Tactical Air Command’s (TAC) elite units. TAC was then in the process of developing inflight refueling capabilities to support long-range deployments of fighter units. Such complex operations were still very problematic. Mission aborts, navigational mistakes, communications failures and tanker rendezvous miscalculations were common. In 1958, Yeager planned and led the first flawless trans-Atlantic deployment of a jet fighter squadron in TAC history, as all of the 1st’s F-100s landed together and on schedule at Moron Air Base, Spain.
The unit repeated the feat when it redeployed back to George AFB four months later. And, during all subsequent deployments to Europe and the Far East, it maintained its perfect record under his command. Yeager later recalled: “I felt almost as good about that as breaking the sound barrier because a transoceanic deployment was how the TAC brass rated a squadron’s
Now, a full colonel, Yeager returned to Edwards as deputy director of flight test in 1961 and, the following year, he took over as commander of the new USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School (ARPS) where he presided over the development of a unique, first-of-its-kind institution designed to prepare U.S. military test pilots for spaceflight. Building on the existing test pilot school curriculum, ARPS offered rigorous, graduate-level training in subjects such as astrophysics and orbital mechanics and it employed a one-of-a-kind flight simulator and other state-of-the-art training systems that prepared students to master an entirely new frontier beyond the atmosphere. The school was swamped with applicants and only the best and brightest—1% by Yeager’s estimate—were granted admission. The excellence of the training provided during the school’s ten-years of operation (1961-71) can be surmised by the fact that 37 graduates were selected for the U.S. space program and 26 earned astronaut’s wings by flying in the Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs. Although Yeager never got a chance to fly in space, in his role as mentor to a whole generation of spaceflight pioneers, he made an important contribution to its exploration. It remains one of his proudest achievements.
Combat has always been the ultimate flying experience for Chuck Yeager and he finally returned to it in 1966 when he took command of the 405th Fighter Wing. With his headquarters at Clark Air Base in the Philippines, Yeager commanded five squadrons and detachments scattered across Southeast Asia: two tactical bomber squadrons flying B-57s out of Clark and Phan Rang Air Base in South Vietnam; a squadron of F-100 fighter-bombers based in Taiwan; a pair of F-102 air defense squadrons flying out of Da Nang, South Vietnam; and detached units flying a variety of aircraft, including F-4s out of places like Da Nang and Udorn and Bankok, Thailand.
Yeager made an effort to visit and fly with each of these units once every 10-12 days. Flying primarily close air support and interdiction missions in a B-57, he added 127 flights and 414 hours to his combat record.
In March 1968, he took over command of the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing while it was deployed to Kunsan AB, Korea, in response to the Pueblo crisis (seizure of a U.S. military vessel by N. Korea). It remained in Korea through June 1968 when Yeager, once again, led it on a perfect redeployment back to its home base at Seymour Johnson AFB, NC. Under his command, the 4th achieved its first “Outstanding Unit” citation . . . and the one-time enlisted crew chief was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General.
In July 1969, Brigadier General Yeager returned to Europe as vice commander of the Seventeenth Air Force where he worked closely with the West Germans in organizing joint exercises and training. In January 1971, he moved into an entirely different type of assignment when he became U.S. Defense Representative to Pakistan at a time when tensions were high in that region of the world. He returned stateside in March of 1973 to take over as USAF Director of Aerospace Safety at Norton AFB, CA.
Retirement from active duty means anything but retirement from active life. While he has long been an Air Force icon, the 1979 publication of Tom Wolfe’s best-seller, The Right Stuff, vaulted Yeager into international celebrity . . . and the 1983 motion picture based on the book further solidified his hold on the public imagination. There are endless demands for public appearances, lectures and interviews. More important, for the past quarter century, his advice has been much sought after by both the government and the aerospace industry on a wide variety of issues ranging from the development of new state-of-the-art aircraft systems to the safety of spaceflight operations. Perhaps, most remarkable of all, for more than two decades, he has retained the stamina, skill and mental acuity to fly and evaluate the most modern high-performance aircraft. He did much of his flying at Edwards where he remains an active consulting test pilot, serving—in the words of one AFFTC commander—as a “wise, accurate and keenly observant advisor” to the Air Force Flight Test Center.
On 14 October 1997, General Yeager returned to Edwards to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his milestone flight in the Bell X-1. More than 55 years after he had commenced his flying career, he climbed into an F-15 Eagle with the name “Glamorous Glennis” gracing its nose and reprised the flight profile that had taken him through the “sound barrier.” His flight that morning was telecast live to a worldwide audience by CNN. Among the many offering congratulations was former President George Bush who captured the essence of the man and his achievements when he wrote: “If I was asked to choose one word that would define Chuck Yeager, it would be service. Fighter pilot, test pilot, combat commander—you have always valued service to our country above all else . . . Chuck, the courage, resourcefulness, and integrity which you have displayed so magnificently throughout over five decades of service to the United States are the very qualities that built this country into the greatest nation on earth.”
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