Charles Yeager

Charles E. Yeager

The first man to travel faster than the speed of sound.

Charles “Chuck” E. Yeager was born on February 19, 1923, in Myra, West Virginia. His father, a natural gas driller in the local coalfields, moved the family to nearby Hamlin, West Virginia by 1928. After graduating from Hamlin High School, “Chuck” enlisted in the Army Air Corps in September 1941, and was accepted for pilot training under the flying sergeant program in July 1942. He received his pilot wings and appointment as a flight officer in March 1943, at Luke Field, Arizona.

During World War II, Yeager flew 64 missions over Europe, distinguishing himself in aerial combat over France and Germany from 1943 to 1945 by shooting down thirteen enemy aircraft, including five on one mission, and one of Germany’s first jet fighters on another. On March 5, 1944, his plane was shot down over German-occupied France but he escaped capture when elements of the French Maquis helped him into neutral Spain.

When Chuck Yeager returned to the United States in 1945, he attended the instructor pilot’s course at Perrin Field, Texas, then stayed on as an instructor pilot. In July 1945, he went to Wright Field, Ohio to participate in various test projects including the P-80 “Shooting Star” and the P-84 “Thunderjet.” He also evaluated all of the German and Japanese fighter aircraft brought back to the United States after the war. This assignment resulted in his subsequent selection as pilot of the nation’s first research rocket aircraft, the Bell XS-1 (renamed the X-1).

In January 1946, Yeager attended the Test Pilot School at Wright Field, securing a regular commission as a captain in the Army Air Corps, which was redesignated as the United States Air Force (USAF) in September 1947. In August 1947, he was sent to Muroc Army Air Field, California (later known as Edwards Air Force Base), as the project officer on the Bell XS-1 experimental rocket plane.

On October 14, 1947, Yeager made history when he flew the X-1 over 683 miles per hour (mph), breaking the sound barrier (Mach 1) as the world’s first supersonic pilot. Over the next two years, he piloted the X-1 more than 40 times, exceeding speeds of 1,000 mph and altitudes of 70,000 feet. Yeager was also the first American to make a ground takeoff in a rocket-powered aircraft. In December 1953, he took the Bell X-1A to a record speed of 1,650 mph, becoming the first man to fly two and one-half times the speed of sound.

Yeager returned to Europe in October 1954, and became commander of the 417th Fighter Squadron at Hahn Air Base, Germany, in May 1955. He remained in that position when his squadron was reassigned to Toul-Rosieres Air Base, France, in April 1956. Upon his return to the United States in September 1957, he was assigned to the 413th Fighter Wing at George Air Force Base (AFB), California, and in April 1958, became commander of the 1st Fighter Squadron. In April 1958, he went with the 1st Tactical Fighter Squadron to Moron Air Base, Spain, where he remained until November 1958. Yeager at that time returned to George AFB with the same unit, which was later redesignated the 306th Tactical Fighter Squadron.

Chuck Yeager graduated from the Air War College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, in June 1961. He became commandant of the Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards AFB, responsible for the training of all military astronauts, in July 1962. On December 10, 1963, while testing an NF-104 rocket-augmented aerospace trainer, he narrowly escaped death when his aircraft went out of control at 108,700 feet (almost 21 miles up). He parachuted to safety, descending to 8,500 feet altitude after vainly trying to control the powerless, rapidly falling craft. In this incident Yeager became the first pilot to make an emergency ejection in the full pressure suit needed for high altitude flights. This accident also put an end to his record attempts. His next assignment was in December 1963 and January 1964, when Yeager completed five flights in the NASA M2-F1 lifting body.

In 1966, Colonel Yeager took command of the 405th Fighter Wing, whose units were deployed in South Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. There he earned another 414 hours of combat time, mostly in Martin B-57 light bombers. In 1968, he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General, and was assigned as the vice-commander of the Seventeenth Air Force in July of 1969. In 1975, following duty in Germany and Pakistan, General Yeager retired from the Air Force with the rank of Brigadier General. He continued to fly for the USAF and NASA as a consulting test pilot at Edwards AFB, California.

In 2004, Congress recommended that Yeager be promoted to the rank of Major General on the retired list. He has flown 201 types of military aircraft and has more than 14,000 flying hours, with more than 13,000 of these in fighter aircraft. He has most recently flown the SR-71, F-15, F-16, F-18 and the F-20 Tigershark. In 1976, Chuck Yeager was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, and in May 1985, he was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

General Yeager’s other decorations include the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star with V device, the Air Force Commendation medal, the Silver Star with oak leaf cluster, the Legion of Merit with oak leaf cluster, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross with two clusters, and the Air Medal with ten clusters. His civilian awards include the Harmon International Trophy (1954) and the Collier and Mackay trophies (1948). In 1973, he became the first and the youngest military pilot to be inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame.

Yeager was selected one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men by the Junior Chamber of Commerce in 1953, presented the Golden Plate Award by the American Academy of Achievement in 1974, and the Horatio Alger Award in 1986. He has published two books: Yeager and Press On: Further Adventures in the Good Life.