Charles Elwood Yeager

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Charles Elwood Yeager


American Pilot

Adecorated World War II fighter pilot, Charles E. ("Chuck") Yeager returned from service in Europe to become one of the leading test pilots of the jet age. He pioneered the testing of high-performance jet- and rocket-powered aircraft, setting numerous speed and distance records in the process. He is best known for becoming, in 1947, the first pilot to fly faster than sound.

Born in Myra, West Virginia, on February 13, 1923, Yeager enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps after graduating from high school in 1941. Originally trained as a mechanic, he began pilot training in 1942 as part of the "Flying Sergeants" program. Posted to England in November 1943, he flew a total of 64 combat missions in P-51 Mustang fighters and shot down 13 enemy aircraft—five of them in a single day.

Yeager became involved in flight testing soon after the end of the war, helping to evaluate captured German and Japanese aircraft. He also helped to evaluate the Lockheed F-80 and Republic F-84, members of the first generation of jet fighters to enter Air Force service. Yeager, by then a Captain and a graduate of the Air Force instructor and test pilot schools, was transferred to Muroc (later Edwards) Air Force Base in August 1947. Muroc, built on a dry lake bed in the California desert, was then emerging as the Air Force's principal site for high-performance flight testing and research, and Yeager was assigned as project officer for the Bell X-1.

The X-1 and its successors were not prototypes for new production aircraft, but research tools for testing new technologies and investigating the nature of flight at extreme speeds and altitudes. The X-1 program itself was a joint project of the Air Force and the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), designed to investigate the nature of flight just below and, if possible, just above the speed of sound. Pilots who approached the speed of sound in piston-engine planes had reported severe buffeting and sometimes loss of control, leading to speculation about an impenetrable "sound barrier" through which no aircraft could pass intact. The X-1's radical design—a bullet-shaped fuselage and thin, sharp-edged wings—was intended to reduce such control problems. On October 14, 1947, Yeager released the X-1 from its B-29 "mother ship" at 21,000 feet (6,401 m) over the desert. Firing the four liquid-fuel rockets clustered in its tail, he reached a speed of Mach 1.06 at an altitude of 45,000 feet (13,716 m), becoming the first pilot to "break the sound barrier."

Yeager made more than 49 flights in various versions of the X-1 between 1947 and 1953, when he became the first pilot to fly at two-anda-half times the speed of sound. He went on to serve as a squadron commander and wing commander in the late 1950s and mid-to-late 1960s, flying jet fighters whose designs owed much to the data he had helped to gather in the X-1. Serving as commander of the Air Force's Aerospace Research Pilot School in the early 1960s, Yeager was directly responsible for training many of the test pilots who would be selected as astronauts for NASA's Gemini and Apollo programs. Yeager retired from active duty in 1976 with the rank of brigadier general, but remained active both as a pilot and as a consulting test pilot for the Air Force. His last official flight as an Air Force consultant took place on October 14, 1997: the 50th anniversary of his first supersonic flight in the X-1. He marked the occasion by breaking the sound barrier again, this time in an F-15 fighter.