Remembering Chuck Yeager
A larger-than-life test pilot and the world’s first supersonic man was a singularly American hero.
There are 15 chapters in Tom Wolfe’s classic The Right Stuff, and only one of them is named for a character in the book. Chapter 3 is simply Yeager, and this by itself should give us a sense of the man’s place in the pantheon of our aeronautic heroes.
West Virginia’s own Charles Elwood Yeager, World War II ace and the first supersonic human being, died yesterday at 97. But what a glorious white-knuckler of a life he lived.
Yeager was born in 1923 in Myra, an unincorporated community in Lincoln County, where his father was a gas-well driller and his family farmed. A self-described hillbilly with a high school education, he was fond of saying he came “from so far up the holler, they had to pipe daylight to me.”
After graduating from Hamlin High School in 1941, Yeager enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army Air Forces and became an aircraft mechanic. Within two years, he was a pilot. His confidence, natural instincts, superb vision, innate understanding of engineering mechanics, and our nation’s entry into World War II all helped put him into the cockpit of a P-51 Mustang — to the everlasting regret of the German Luftwaffe.
As Emily Jashinsky writes in The Federalist, “The magnitude of his heroics is impossible to summarize succinctly. … Yeager served as a fighter pilot in World War II, during which he was shot down and evaded capture, later persuading Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to allow him to return to combat.”
On October 12, 1944, Yeager downed five enemy aircraft in a single mission and finished the war credited with shooting down at least 12 German planes, including a Messerschmitt ME-262, one of the world’s first fighter jets. You can read Yeager’s original “Encounter Report” of that incident here.
Three years later, on Oct. 14, 1947, Yeager piloted an experimental Bell X-1 rocket plane (named Glamorous Glennis after his first wife) high over California’s Mojave Desert to Mach 1.06, around 700 miles an hour – with two broken ribs, no less. In doing so, he also created the first sonic boom in aviation history. In his understated West Virginia way, he radioed back to say, “I’m still wearing my ears, and nothing else fell off, neither.” Yeager was also the first man to hit Mach 2, ultimately settling for two-and-a-half times the speed of sound.
Was he the greatest pilot of all time? You tell us.
As Brad McElhinny writes in the West Virginia Metro Times, “He thrilled West Virginians by buzzing under Charleston’s South Side Bridge in a Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star in 1948.” That was Chuck Yeager – the same Chuck Yeager who flew 127 missions during the Vietnam War while also training bomber pilots. He made brigadier general in 1969.
This, too, was Chuck Yeager: an interesting and active Twitter user with a following of more than 150,000.
The man was so good, and so good so early, that, as Wolfe wrote, “Military pilots and then, soon, airline pilots, pilots from Maine and Massachusetts and the Dakotas and Oregon and everywhere else, began to talk in that poker-hollow West Virginia drawl, or as close to it as they could bend their native accents. It was the drawl of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.”
“West Virginia’s native son was larger than life,” said one of his home-state senators, Joe Manchin, “and an inspiration for generations of Americans. … When he became the first pilot to break the sound barrier he challenged each of us to test the limits of what’s possible.”
Said the other West Virginia senator, Shelley Moore Capito, echoing President Reagan’s tribute to the space shuttle Challenger crew, Yeager has “slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the face of God.”
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