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Chuck Yeager - Chasing the Demons for 72 Years

15 Oct 2019

 


Charles Elwood "Chuck" Yeager stepped inside the Bell X-1,72 years ago on the 14th October 1947, when he stepped out he carried the title of the fastest man alive and the first man to break the elusive sound barrier. Chasing that particular demon was conceived to be impossible by some people, that never bothered Chuck.

Chuck Yeager was born February 13, 1923, to farming parents Susie Mae and Albert Hal Yeager in Myra, West Virginia, and graduated from high school in Hamlin, West Virginia, in June 1941.

 

 His first experience with the military was as a teen at the Citizens Military Training Camp at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indianapolis, Indiana, during the summers of 1939 and 1940. On February 26, 1945, Yeager married Glennis Dickhouse, and the couple had four children, Glennis passed away in 1990.

 

Yeager enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) on September 12, 1941, and became an aircraft mechanic at George Air Force Base, Victorville, California.

At enlistment,Yeager was not eligible for flight training because of his age and educational background, but the entry of the U.S. into World War II less than three months later prompted the USAAF to alter its recruiting standards. Having unusually sharp vision, which once enabled him to shoot a deer at 550 m, Yeager displayed natural talent as a pilot and was accepted for flight training.

 

 

He received his wings and a promotion to flight officer at Luke Field, Arizona, where he graduated from class 43C on March 10, 1943. Assigned to the 357th Fighter Group at Tonopah, Nevada, he initially trained as a fighter pilot, flying Bell P-39 Airacobras (being grounded for seven days for clipping a farmer's tree during a training flight), and shipped to Europe  with the group on November 23, 1943.

Bell P-39 Airacobra

Stationed in the United Kingdom at RAF Leiston, Yeager flew P-51 Mustangs in combat with the 363d Fighter Squadron. He named his aircraft Glamorous Glen after his girlfriend, Glennis Faye Dickhouse, who became his wife in February 1945.

Yeager on the wing of his P-51 Mustangs

Yeager had gained one victory before he was shot down over France in his first aircraft on March 5, 1944 during his eighth mission. He escaped to Spain on March 30 with the help of the Maquis (French Resistance) and returned to England on May 15, 1944. During his stay with the Maquis, Yeager assisted the guerrillas in duties that did not involve direct combat; he helped to construct bombs for the group, a skill that he had learned from his father. He was awarded the Bronze Star for helping a B-24 navigator, "Pat" Patterson, who was shot in the knee during the escape attempt, to cross the Pyrenees. Yeager cut off the tendon by which Patterson's leg was hanging below the knee and then tied off the leg with a spare shirt made of parachute silk.

B-24 navigator

Despite a regulation prohibiting "evaders" (escaped pilots) from flying over enemy territory again, the purpose of which was to prevent a second capture from compromising resistance groups, Yeager was reinstated to flying combat. He had joined another evader, fellow P-51 pilot 1st Lt Fred Glover, in speaking directly to the Supreme Allied Commander,

 

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, on June 12, 1944. With Glover pleading their case, they argued that because the Allies had invaded France and the Maquis were by then openly fighting the Nazis alongside Allied troops, if Yeager or Glover were shot down again, there was little about those who had previously helped them evade capture that could be revealed to the enemy.

                   

General Dwight D. Eisenhower

Eisenhower, after gaining permission from the War Department to decide the requests, concurred with Yeager and Glover. Yeager later credited his post war success in the Air Force to this decision, saying that his test pilot career followed naturally from his having been a decorated combat pilot, along with having been an aircraft mechanic before attending pilot school. In part, because of his maintenance background, he also frequently served as a maintenance officer in his flying units.

 

Yeager demonstrated outstanding flying skills and combat leadership. On October 12, 1944, he became the first pilot in his group to make "ace in a day," downing five enemy aircraft in a single mission. Two of these kills were scored without firing a single shot: when he flew into firing position against a Messerschmitt Bf 109, the pilot of the aircraft panicked, breaking to starboard and colliding with his wingman. Yeager said both pilots bailed out. He finished the war with 11.5 official victories, including one of the first air-to-air victories over a jet fighter, a German Messerschmitt Me 262 that he shot down as it was on final approach for landing.

Messerschmitt Bf 109             Messerschmitt Me 262

In his 1986 memoirs, Yeager recalled with disgust that "atrocities were committed by both sides" said he went on a mission with orders from the Eighth Air Force to "strafe anything that moved." During the mission briefing, he whispered to Major Donald H. Bochkay, "If we are going to do things like this, we sure as hell better make sure we are on the winning side."  Yeager said, "I’m certainly not proud of that particular strafing mission against civilians. But it is there, on the record and in my memory." He has also expressed bitterness at his treatment in Britain during WWII, describing the British as "arrogant" and "nasty".

 

Yeager was commissioned a second lieutenant while at Leiston, and was promoted to captain before the end of his tour. He flew his 61st and final mission on January 15, 1945, and returned to the United States in early February. As an evader, he received his choice of assignments and, because his new wife was pregnant, chose Wright Field to be near his home in West Virginia. His high number of flight hours and maintenance experience qualified him to become a functional test pilot of repaired aircraft, which brought him under the command of Colonel Albert Boyd, head of the Aeronautical Systems Flight Test Division.

Wright Field 1945

Yeager remained in the Air Force after the war, becoming a test pilot at Muroc Army Air Field (now Edwards Air Force Base), following graduation from Air Materiel Command Flight Performance School. After Bell Aircraft test pilot Chalmers "Slick" Goodlin demanded $150,000 ($1.8 million in 2018 dollars) to break the sound "barrier," the USAAF selected Yeager to fly the rocket-powered Bell X-1 in a NACA program to research high-speed flight.

Rocket-powered Bell X-1

Such was the difficulty in this task that the answer too many of the inherent challenges was along the lines of "Yeager better have paid-up insurance."  Two nights before the scheduled date for the flight, Yeager broke two ribs when he fell from a horse. He was worried that the injury would remove him from the mission and reported that he went to a civilian doctor in nearby Rosamond, who taped his ribs. Yeager told only his wife, as well as friend and fellow project pilot Jack Ridley, about the accident. On the day of the flight, Yeager was in such pain that he could not seal the X-1's hatch by himself. Ridley rigged up a device, using the end of a broom handle as an extra lever, to allow Yeager to seal the hatch.

Chuck Yeager and Jack Ridley

Yeager broke the sound barrier on October 14, 1947, flying the X-1 Glamorous Glennis at Mach 1.07 at an altitude of 45,000 ft. over the Rogers Dry Lake in the Mojave Desert. Yeager was awarded the Mackay Trophy and the Collier Trophy in 1948 for his Mach-transcending flight, and the Harmon International Trophy in 1954. The X-1 he flew that day was later put on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.

 Bell X-1 at the Smithsonian

Yeager went on to break many other speed and altitude records. He was also one of the first American pilots to fly a MiG-15, after its pilot, No Kum-sok, defected to South Korea. Returning to Muroc, during the latter half of 1953, Yeager was involved with the USAF team that was working on the X-1A, an aircraft designed to surpass Mach 2 in level flight. That year, he flew a chase aircraft for the civilian pilot Jackie Cochran as she became the first woman to fly faster than sound.

 Chuck Yeager and Jackie Cochran

On November 20, 1953, the U.S. Navy program involving the D-558-II Skyrocket and its pilot, Scott Crossfield, became the first team to reach twice the speed of sound. After they were bested, Ridley and Yeager decided to beat rival Crossfield's speed record in a series of test flights that they dubbed "Operation NACA Weep." Not only did they beat Crossfield by setting a new record at Mach 2.44 on December 12, 1953, but they did it in time to spoil a celebration planned for the 50th anniversary of flight in which Crossfield was to be called "the fastest man alive."

       

The new record flight, however, did not entirely go to plan, since shortly after reaching Mach 2.44, Yeager lost control of the X-1A at about 80,000 ft. due to inertia coupling, a phenomenon largely unknown at the time. With the aircraft simultaneously rolling, pitching, and yawing out of control, Yeager dropped 51,000 feet in less than a minute before regaining control at around 29,000 feet. He then managed to land without further incident. For this achievement, Yeager was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) in 1954.

Bell X-1A

Yeager was foremost a fighter pilot and held several squadron and wing commands. From May 1955 to July 1957 he commanded the F-86H Sabre-equipped 417th Fighter-Bomber Squadron (50th Fighter-Bomber Wing) at Hahn AB, Germany, and Toul-Rosieres Air Base, France; and from 1957 to 1960 the F-100D Super Sabre-equipped 1st Fighter Day Squadron, later, while still under Yeager's command, re-designated the 306th Tactical Fighter Squadron at George Air Force Base, California, and Morón Air Base, Spain.

F-86H Sabre

Now a full colonel in 1962, after completion of a year's studies at the Air War College, Yeager became the first commandant of the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School, which produced astronauts for NASA and the USAF, after its resignation from the USAF Flight Test Pilot School. Between December 1963 and January 1964, Yeager completed five flights in the NASA M2-F1 lifting body. An accident during a December 1963 test flight in one of the school's NF-104s eventually put an end to his record attempts.

NASA M2-F1 lifting body

In 1966 Yeager took command of the 405th Tactical Fighter Wing at Clark Air Base, the Philippines, whose squadrons were deployed on rotational temporary duty in South Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. There he accrued another 414 hours of combat time in 127 missions, mostly in a Martin B-57 Canberra light bomber.

Martin B-57 Canberra

In February 1968, Yeager was assigned command of the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, and led the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II wing in South Korea during the Pueblo crisis.

McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II

On June 22, 1969, Yeager was promoted to brigadier general and was assigned in July as the vice-commander of the Seventeenth Air Force. 

 

From 1971 to 1973, at the behest of Ambassador Joe Farland, Yeager was assigned to Pakistan to advise the Pakistan Air Force. In one of the numerous raids carried out by Indian pilots against Pakistani airfields, Yeager's plane was destroyed while it was parked at Islamabad airport. Edward C. Ingraham, a U.S diplomat who had served as political counsellor to Ambassador Farland in Islamabad recalled this incident in the Washington Monthly of October, 1985: "After Yeager’s Beechcraft was destroyed during an Indian air raid, he raged to his cowering colleagues that the Indian pilot had been specifically instructed by Indira Gandhi to blast his plane. 'It was,' he later wrote, 'the Indian way of giving Uncle Sam the finger.'"

 

On March 1, 1975, following assignments in Germany and Pakistan, Yeager retired from the Air Force at Norton Air Force Base after serving over 33 years on active duty, although he continued to occasionally fly for the USAF and NASA as a consulting test pilot at Edwards AFB.

 

 

Yeager made a cameo appearance in the movie The Right Stuff in 1983. He played "Fred," a bartender at "Pancho's Place", which was most appropriate, as Yeager said, "if all the hours were ever totalled, I reckon I spent more time at her place than in a cockpit over those years." His own role in the movie was played by Sam Shepard.

 

 

 

For several years in the 1980s, Yeager was connected to General Motors, publicizing AC Delco, the company's automotive parts division. In 1986 he was invited to drive the Chevrolet Corvette pace car for the 70th running of the Indianapolis 500. In 1988, Yeager was again invited to drive the pace car, this time at the wheel of an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. In 1986, President Reagan appointed Yeager to the Rogers Commission that investigated the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Yeager set several light general aircraft performance records for speed, range, and endurance. Most notable were flights conducted on behalf of Piper Aircraft. On one such flight, Yeager performed an emergency landing as a result of fuel exhaustion. On another, he piloted Piper's turboprop Cheyenne 400LS to a time-to-height record: FL350 (35,000 feet) in 16 minutes, exceeding the climb performance of a Boeing 737 at gross weight.

Cheyenne 400LS

 

 During this time Yeager also served as a technical adviser for three Electronic Arts flight simulator video games. The games include Chuck Yeager's Advanced Flight Trainer, Chuck Yeager's Advanced Flight Trainer 2.0, and Chuck Yeager's Air Combat. The game manuals featured quotes and anecdotes from Yeager, and were well received by players. Missions featured several of Yeager's accomplishments and let players attempt to top his records. Chuck Yeager's Advanced Flight Trainer was Electronic Art's top selling game for 1987.

 

Yeager is fully retired from military test flying, after having maintained that status for three decades after his official retirement from the Air Force. On October 14, 1997, on the 50th anniversary of his historic flight past Mach 1, he flew a new Glamorous Glennis III, an F-15D Eagle, past Mach 1. The chase plane for the flight was an F-16 Fighting Falcon piloted by Bob Hoover, a long-time test, fighter and aerobatic pilot who had been Yeager's wingman for the first supersonic flight.

Glamorous Glennis III the F-15D Eagle

This was Yeager's last official flight with the U.S. Air Force. At the end of his speech to the crowd, Yeager concluded, "All that I am ... I owe to the Air Force." Later that month, he was the recipient of the Tony Jannus Award for his achievements.

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