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April 9, 2024

Profiles of Valor: Brig Gen Chuck Yeager (USAF)

“I was always afraid of dying. Always.”

I have written often of military pilots I admire — but some of the most humble among them stand tall above others.

Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager was a native of the rugged backwoods of West Virginia, born in the tiny town of Myra. Like some other heroic folks from the Mountain State, including Medal of Honor recipient Woody Williams (USMC), this ancient Appalachian region has shaped some remarkably heroic Patriots.

Chuck’s parents, like most in the region, were farmers and barely made ends meet for their five children. He attended Hamlin High School, where he excelled both at basketball and football and in mathematics.

At age 18, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted as a private in the Army and was assigned to the Army Air Force. He was trained as an aircraft mechanic but observed, “I saw pilots had beautiful girls on their arms, didn’t have dirty hands, so I applied.” In September 1942, he entered pilot training for enlisted personnel, graduating above most of his peers and then being promoted to the rank of Flight Officer, the air version of an Army Warrant Officer.

Yeager had unusually sharp vision and spatial and situational awareness and would excel as a fighter pilot over Europe in the venerable P-51 D Mustang. He demonstrated his vision and shooting skills early, having taken large game at more than 500 meters on steel sights. (For the record, I had the opportunity to clock a few hours in a Mustang almost 50 years later — and to this day, those remain the best hours ever spent in the air!)

Yeager was stationed in the UK at RAF Leiston, flying combat missions with the 363d Fighter Squadron. He named his aircraft “Glamorous Glen” after his girlfriend, Glennis. It was a name that would appear on an aircraft that would make him famous after World War II.

After his first kill, he was shot down over France in an older P-51B model, escaping to Spain and later declaring, “Ain’t a German in the world can catch a West Virginian in the woods.” With the help of the French Resistance, he made his way back to England just before D-Day. Pilots who were shot down and assisted by resistance forces were not generally reinstated because, if shot down again, they could be tortured into revealing information on those forces. However, Yeager was reinstated to pilot status after, in his words, “I raised so much hell that General Eisenhower finally let me go back to my squadron.” In a meeting with Ike, he said to Yeager: “I am curious. I’ve got people shooting themselves in the foot to go home; what is the matter with you?” Chuck responded, “I haven’t [finished] my job.”

Yeager would go on to be credited with 11.5 enemy aircraft kills (the half being credited because it was by the account of another pilot), and on October 12, 1944, after shooting down five enemy aircraft in one mission, he became a member of the exclusive “Ace in a Day” club, the first pilot in his fighter group to have that distinction.

One of those enemy shoot-downs was a German Me-262 as it was attempting to land. At altitude, the new jet-powered Me-262 could easily evade a P-51, but in this case, near the ground, then-Capt. Yeager shot him down. Yeager observed, “First time I saw a jet, I shot it down!” He added because the plane was near the ground, “Unsportsmanlike, but what the hell?”

After the war concluded, Yeager married his sweetheart Glennis and became a test pilot at Muroc Army Air Field (now Edwards Air Force Base). Then age 24, Yeager was chosen to fly the rocket-powered Bell XS-1 under the auspices of the Air Force, which became its own service branch on September 18, 1947. A month later, on October 14, Yeager became famous as the first man to break the sound barrier in his X-1, which he named “Glamorous Glennis.” He pushed through Mach 1.05 at 45,000 ft. over Rogers Dry Lake of the Mojave Desert.

Notably, 48 hours before the flight, Yeager broke two ribs after being thrown from a horse at full gallop. He did not want this to disqualify him from the flight, so, after telling his fellow project pilot Jack Ridley about being in such pain he could not seal the X-1’s hatch, Ridley cut the end of a broom handle on the spot so Yeager could use it as a lever to close the hatch.

Today, the notion of flying fighter aircraft at Mach+ is routine, but at the time Yeager accelerated through that barrier, it was unknown what the consequence would be and assumed there was a high probability that his aircraft might disintegrate. Indeed, observers on the ground assumed that had happened when they were surprised by the sonic boom shock wave from the X-1.

The 1983 film “The Right Stuff,” based on Tom Wolfe’s book by the same name, details the remarkable bravery of Yeager and the early test pilots. According to Wolfe, Yeager was “the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff.” Yeager later observed that when people asked about “the right stuff,” he said: “All I know is I worked my tail off learning to learn how to fly and worked hard at it all the way. If there is such a thing as the right stuff in piloting, then it is experience. The secret to my success was that somehow I always managed to live to fly another day.”

But the test pilots’ quest to go higher and faster was largely overshadowed by the Mercury Seven military pilots training to be astronauts.

Yeager continued to break records, some of which almost killed him.

Fighter/test pilots, possessing an enormous “competitive” spirit, could not let another pilot get ahead of them. In 1953, days ahead of the ceremony to celebrate Scott Crossfield’s record for exceeding Mach 2, Yeager pushed his X-1A to Mach 2.44, ensuring Crossfield could not be proclaimed “the fastest man alive.” In doing so, however, Yeager lost control of his X-1A at 80,000 feet and dropped 51,000 feet in less than a minute, finally regaining control at around 29,000 feet. For this achievement and saving his aircraft, he was awarded the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal.

A decade later, in 1963, while trying to reach a record altitude in an NF-104, the aircraft, in thin air at 95,000 ft., went into an unrecoverable flat spin, requiring Yeager to eject. That resulted in serious injuries after the ejection seat rocket hit and broke Yeager’s helmet and face shield, igniting his emergency oxygen supply. The resulting burns required extensive critical care, and the incident was his last attempt at setting records.

Yeager went on to serve in Air Force command positions, retiring as a highly respected Brigadier General in 1975 after receiving his Air Force Command Pilot Badge and a second Distinguished Service Medal. Over the course of his 70-year career, he flew 361 different military aircraft types. That would include, in 2012, an F-15D Eagle designated Glamorous Glennis III to commemorate the 65th anniversary of his historic flight through Mach 1. Despite his bullet-proof persona, at the end of his career, he said: “I was always afraid of dying. Always.”

Glennis and Chuck had four children. She died in 1990; he died at age 97 in December 2020.

Chuck Yeager: Your example of valor — a humble American Patriot defending Liberty for all above and beyond the call of duty, and in disregard for the peril to your own life — is eternal. “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis
Pro Deo et Libertate — 1776


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