Brig. Gen. Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager was born in Myra, W.Va., on
Feb. 13, 1923.
Coming from a very poor, rural background, he enlisted as a private in the
Army Air Corps in September 1941 after graduating from high school.
After serving briefly as an aircraft mechanic, entered enlisted pilot
training in September 1942. He graduated as an enlisted flight officer from Luke
Field, Ariz., in March 1943 and was assigned to the 363rd Fighter Squadron
(357th Fighter Group), at Tonopah, Nev., where he flew P-39s.
In November 1943, his unit was sent to England where he entered combat (photo)
flying a P-51 Mustang. He downed a German aircraft before being shot down
over occupied France during his eighth mission on March 5,1944. He evaded
capture and managed to convince Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to permit him to return
to combat with his squadron. He flew 56 more combat missions during which he
shot down 11 more German aircraft (including five Me 109s during a single
mission Oct. 12, 1944). He returned to the United States in February 1945
and was assigned to Perrin Field, Texas, as a basic flying instructor. Then, in
July 1945, he was assigned as a maintenance officer to the Flight Test Division
at Wright Field, Ohio – an assignment which was destined to lead to a major
turning point in his career.
His remarkably superb flying skills quickly caught the attention of Col.
Albert Boyd, chief of the division, and Col. Fred Ascani, his deputy. As Ascani
recalled, Yeager flew an airplane "as though he was an integral part of it;
his 'feel' for a new airplane was instinctive, intuitive and as natural as if he
had already flown it for a hundred or more hours."
In 1946, he graduated from the Flight Performance School (initial designation
of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School) at Wright Field and, in 1947, Boyd
selected him as project pilot for one of the most important series of flights in
history. In late summer 1947, he was sent to Muroc Army Air Field (now Edwards
Air Force Base) to fly the rocket-powered Bell X-1 (photo).
After launch from a B-29 (photo),
Oct. 14, 1947, he accelerated to a speed of Mach 1.06 at 42,000 feet and
shattered the myth of the once-dreaded "sound barrier" forever.
Spectacular though it was, Yeager's (photo)
first supersonic flight represented just the beginning of a seven-year career at
Edwards (1947-54) during which he would establish himself as one of the truly
legendary figures among the world's fraternity of test pilots.
The late 1940s and '50s were an era when the limits of time and space were
being dramatically expanded. A whole series of "X-" or experimental
aircraft were designed to explore bold new concepts. Because of his
consummate piloting skill, his coolness under pressure and ability to detect a
problem, quickly analyze it and take appropriate action, Yeager was selected to
probe some of the most challenging unknowns of flight in aircraft such as the
X-3 (photo), X-4,
X-5 and XF-92A.
He continued to explore the enigmas of high-speed flight, for example, as he
piloted the rocket-powered X-1A (photo)
to a record 1,650 mph (Mach 2.44) on Dec. 12, 1953. During this flight, he
became the first pilot to encounter inertia coupling. The aircraft literally
tumbled about all three axes as it plummeted for more than 40,000 feet before he
was able to recover it to level flight. Even his legendary rival, Scott
Crossfield, has since conceded that it was "probably fortunate" that
Yeager was the pilot on that flight "so we had the airplane to fly another
By latter-day standards, it is remarkable that, while engaged in a wide range
of such highly experimental flight research programs, he was also involved in
the evaluation of virtually all of the aircraft that were then being considered
for the Air Force's operational inventory. Indeed, he averaged more than 100
flying hours per month from 1947-1954 and, at one point, actually flew 27
different types and models of aircraft within the span of a single month.
In October 1954, he was assigned to command the 417th Fighter Squadron, first
in Germany and then in France. Returning to the United States in September 1957,
he served as commander (photo)
of the 1st Fighter Squadron at George Air Force Base, Calif.
After graduating from the Air War College in June of 1961, he returned to
Edwards where, in July 1962, he was selected to serve as commandant (photo)
of the U.S. Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School (designation of the U.S.
Air Force Test Pilot School from 1961 to 1972) where he was responsible for the
training of U.S. military astronaut candidates.
In July 1966, he assumed command of the 405th Fighter Wing at Clark Air Base
in the Philippines. During this tour, he flew 127 combat missions over Vietnam.
In February 1968, he took command (photo)
of the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., and in
February 1968, led its deployment to Korea during the Pueblo crisis. In
July 1969, he became vice commander of the 17th Air Force, at Ramstein Air Base,
Germany, and then, in January 1971, he was assigned as U.S. defense
representative to Pakistan. On June 1, 1973, he commenced his final active duty
assignment as director of the Air Force Safety and Inspection Center at Norton
Air Force Base, Calif. After a 34-year military career, he retired on March 1,
1975. At the time of his retirement, he had flown more than 10,000 hours in more
than 330 different types and models of aircraft.
Former test pilot and Gemini/Apollo astronaut Michael Collins once observed
that "test pilots are a select group within a select group." That fact
has remained constant since the early days of aviation. Within this select
group, Chuck Yeager (photo)
became the leader, recognized as first among equals, the role model for his
fellow test pilots – a preeminent position which now, more than a half-century
after his most celebrated achievement, he still enjoys to this day.