Chuck Yeager, first pilot to fly faster than sound, dies aged 97

‘Living to a ripe old age is not an end in itself. The trick is to enjoy the years’

Chuck Yeager poses at Edwards Air Force Base, California, in 1985, in front of the rocket-powered Bell X-IE plane that he flew when he broke the sound barrier. Photograph: AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac

Chuck Yeager poses at Edwards Air Force Base, California, in 1985, in front of the rocket-powered Bell X-IE plane that he flew when he broke the sound barrier. Photograph: AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac

 

Charles “Chuck” Yeager, the Second World War fighter pilot ace and test pilot who became the first person to fly faster than sound in 1947, has died aged 97.

Brig Gen Yeager died on Monday, his wife, Victoria Yeager, said on his Twitter account.

She wrote: “It is w/ profound sorrow, I must tell you that my life love General Chuck Yeager passed just before 9pm ET. An incredible life well lived, America’s greatest Pilot, & a legacy of strength, adventure, & patriotism will be remembered forever.”

Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine said Gen Yeager’s death is “a tremendous loss” to America.

“Gen Yeager’s pioneering and innovative spirit advanced America’s abilities in the sky and set our nation’s dreams soaring into the jet age and the space age. He said, ‘You don’t concentrate on risks. You concentrate on results. No risk is too great to prevent the necessary job from getting done,‘” Mr Bridenstine added.

Edwards air force base historian Jim Young said in August 2006 at the unveiling of a bronze statue of Yeager: “In an age of media-made heroes, he is the real deal.”

He was “the most righteous of all those with the right stuff,” said Maj Gen Curtis Bedke, commander of the US air force flight test centre at Edwards.

Small town

Gen Yeager, who was from a small town in the hills of West Virginia, flew for more than 60 years, including piloting an X-15 to near 1,000mph at Edwards in October 2002 at the age of 79.

“Living to a ripe old age is not an end in itself. The trick is to enjoy the years remaining,” he said in Yeager: An Autobiography.

“I haven’t yet done everything, but by the time I’m finished, I won’t have missed much,” he wrote.

“If I auger in (crash) tomorrow, it won’t be with a frown on my face. I’ve had a ball.”

On October 14th, 1947, Gen Yeager, then a 24-year-old captain, pushed an orange, bullet-shaped Bell X-1 rocket plane past 660mph to break the sound barrier — at that time, a daunting aviation milestone.

Yeager pictured in a US Air Force handout from 1947. Photograph: USAF/AFP via Getty Images
Yeager pictured in a US Air Force handout from 1947. Photograph: USAF/AFP via Getty Images

“Sure, I was apprehensive,” he said in 1968. “When you’re fooling around with something you don’t know much about, there has to be apprehension. But you don’t let that affect your job.”

Gen Yeager said in 1947 he could have gone even faster had the plane carried more fuel. He said the ride “was nice, just like riding fast in a car”.

Gen Yeager nicknamed the rocket plane, and all his other aircraft, Glamorous Glennis, after his wife, who died in 1990.

The pilot’s record-breaking feat was kept top secret for about a year when the world thought Britain had broken the sound barrier first.

“It wasn’t a matter of not having aeroplanes that would fly at speeds like this. It was a matter of keeping them from falling apart,” Gen Yeager said.

Sixty-five years later to the minute, on October 14th, 2012, Gen Yeager commemorated the feat, flying in the back seat of an F-15 Eagle as it broke the sound barrier at more than 30,000ft above California’s Mojave Desert.

His exploits were told in Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff, and the 1983 film it inspired.

Army air corps

Gen Yeager enlisted in the army air corps after graduating from high school in 1941. He later regretted that his lack of a college education prevented him from becoming an astronaut.

He started off as an aircraft mechanic and, despite becoming severely airsick during his first aeroplane ride, signed up for a programme that allowed enlisted men to become pilots.

Gen Yeager shot down 13 German planes on 64 missions during the Second World War, including five on a single mission.

He was once shot down over German-held France but escaped with the help of French partisans.

Chuck Yeager walks the red carpet before the induction ceremony for The California Museum’s California Hall of Fame in Sacramento, December, 2009. Photograph: EPA
Chuck Yeager walks the red carpet before the induction ceremony for The California Museum’s California Hall of Fame in Sacramento, December, 2009. Photograph: EPA

After the war, he became a test pilot beginning at Wright-Patterson air force base in Dayton, Ohio.

Among the flights he made after breaking the sound barrier was one on December 12th, 1953, when he flew an X-1A to a record of more than 1,600mph. He said he had got up at dawn that day and went hunting, bagging a goose before his flight. That night, he said, his family ate the goose for dinner.

He returned to combat during the Vietnam War, flying several missions a month in twin-engine B-57 Canberras, making bombing and strafing runs over South Vietnam.

Roots

Gen Yeager never forgot his roots, and West Virginia named bridges, schools and Charleston’s airport after him.

“My beginnings back in West Virginia tell who I am to this day,” Gen Yeager wrote.

“My accomplishments as a test pilot tell more about luck, happenstance and a person’s destiny. But the guy who broke the sound barrier was the kid who swam the Mud River with a swiped watermelon or shot the head off a squirrel before going to school.”

Gen Yeager was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star, the Air Medal and the Purple Heart. President Harry S Truman awarded him the Collier air trophy in December 1948 for his breaking the sound barrier. He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985.

He married Glennis Dickhouse of Oroville, California, on February 26 1945. She died of ovarian cancer in December 1990. They had four children: Donald, Michael, Sharon and Susan.

Gen Yeager married 45-year-old Victoria Scott D’Angelo in 2003.