Chuck Yeager, best known as the first man to break the sound barrier and the test pilot immortalized in the novel and movie The Right Stuff, died yesterday at the age of 97. If Yeager hadn’t existed, Hollywood writers would’ve had to make him up. His life is a uniquely American story, one that singularly defines the nation’s claim to greatness in the twentieth century.
Yeager came out of the hills of West Virginia with little education and lots of pluck. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps soon after finishing high school—just three months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. In spite of the fact he wasn’t eligible for pilot training upon entry because of his age and lack of education, he was subsequently reassigned from fixing airplanes to flying them, in part because of his 20/10 vision. He had never flown in a plane before being accepted for pilot training. When a pilot did take him up for the first time, Yeager threw up all over the plane, and thought to himself, “Yeager, you made a big mistake.” Soon, though, he demonstrated a natural talent for flying.
Yeager was still an enlisted man when he shipped out late in 1943, flying P-51 Mustangs from a base in England. He had “Glamorous Glennis” painted on the nose of his fighter in honor of his girlfriend (later wife) back home. He earned his first kill on his fifth mission and was shot down over France on his eighth. He spent two months with resistance fighters, helping them build explosives, before the Pyrenees snow melted enough to allow a harrowing escape into Spain, followed by repatriation back to England. And although it was War Department policy that aviators who were shot down and returned not be allowed to fly combat sorties again for fear of what they might reveal under interrogation if they became POWs, Yeager personally convinced General Eisenhower to grant him permission to fly in combat again.
On October 12, 1944 Yeager obtained “ace in a day” status after downing five enemy aircraft during a single mission. Later he was one of the few American fighter pilots to score a kill against an Me-262, the Luftwaffe’s first operational jet aircraft. He ended World War II with eleven kills and a commission as a second lieutenant.
Yeager’s experiences as a maintainer and decorated fighter pilot made him a perfect fit for test pilot duties in the California desert, a wide expanse now known as Edwards Air Force Base. He famously got the gig that earned him the distinction of being the first man to break the speed of sound when Bell Aircraft’s corporate test pilot “Slick” Goodlin demanded $150,000 to attempt the feat. No one knew for sure what conditions would be like at or above the speed of sound; some scientists believed flight would be impossible. Legend has it that, when asked how much he would charge for the same effort, Yeager quipped, “I’m pretty sure the Air Force is already paying me.”
Yeager broke the sound barrier flying another airplane with “Glamourous Glennis” scrawled across the nose, this time a Bell X-1, over the Mojave Desert on October 14, 1947. As documented in Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff and the 1983 movie based on the book, Yeager needed the assistance of another test pilot and a cut-off broom handle to close the X-1’s hatch because he’d broken a couple of ribs two days before after falling off of a horse.
After the flight, Yeager admitted that actually breaking the speed of sound was a letdown of sorts, since the airplane didn’t behave in any unusual way passing through Mach 1. “I was thunderstruck,” he wrote in a 1985 autobiography. “After all the anxiety, breaking the sound barrier turned out to be a perfectly paved speedway.” However, the feat set the stage for the space program that followed. “The demon”—the test-pilot nickname for the sound barrier—could be tamed.
About ten years later NASA was founded by President Eisenhower—the same man who had allowed Yeager to return to the fight after being shot down—and with it came layers of bureaucracy that made America’s most famous test pilot ineligible to be an astronaut. Astronauts needed college degrees and had to be graduates of an accredited military test pilot school. (The U.S. military has two, administered by the Navy and Air Force.) The Mercury program brought names like Shepard and Glenn into the spotlight while Yeager served in a supporting role, always close to the test community but never riding in the ticker-tape parade after a space mission.
In training, combat, his test pilot career, and his personal life, Yeager flew more than 360 varieties of planes—and he liked to joke that he had only “five more takeoffs than landings.” He continued to serve in a variety of operational and test commands until his retirement at the rank of brigadier general on October 14, 1997, the fiftieth anniversary of breaking the speed of sound. In retirement, his square jaw and steely-eyed gaze made him the perfect pitchman for AC Delco, the automotive parts division of General Motors. (If General Yeager says a spark plug is reliable, then, gosh darn it, that’s the one to buy.)
The Air Force gave him one last chance to tame the demon in the backseat of an F-15 Eagle on October 14, 2012, the 65th anniversary of the original feat. He was 89.
In the era of MAGA, we critics often ask, “What year of American greatness, exactly, are we talking about returning to here?” For me—a guy who was lucky enough to get paid to fly supersonic jets for most of my adult life—that year is 1947, the year a country boy from West Virginia who used skills honed hunting deer to become a fighter ace as an enlisted man broke the speed of sound with two broken ribs and zero demand for financial compensation for assuming the massive risk he assumed with the flight.
Chuck Yeager’s accomplishments, not his rhetoric, give credence to his wife’s claim in her tweet announcing his death that he was “America’s greatest pilot.”