CHUCK Yeager, the most famous test pilot of his generation and the first to break the sound barrier, has died in Los Angeles. He was 97.
The New York Times reports General Yeager came out of the West Virginia hills with only a high school education and with a drawl that left many a fellow pilot bewildered.
The first time he went up in a plane, he was sick to his stomach.
But he became a fighter ace in World War II, shooting down five German planes in a single day and 13 overall.
In the decade that followed, he helped usher in the age of military jets and spaceflight.
He flew more than 150 military aircraft, logging more than 10,000 hours in the air.
His most remarkable achievement came on October 14, 1947, when he climbed out of a B-29 bomber as it ascended over the Mojave Desert in California and entered the cockpit of an orange, bullet-shaped, rocket-powered experimental plane attached to the bomb bay.
An Air Force captain at the time, he zoomed off in the plane, a Bell Aircraft X-1, at an altitude of 23,000 feet, and when he reached about 43,000 feet above the desert, history’s first sonic boom reverberated across the floor of the dry lake beds.
He had reached a speed of 700 miles an hour, breaking the sound barrier and dispelling the long-held fear that any plane flying at or beyond the speed of sound would be torn apart by shock waves.
After all the anticipation to achieve this moment, it really was a letdown,” General Yeager wrote in his best-selling memoir “Yeager” (1985, with Leo Janos).
“There should’ve been a bump in the road, something to let you know that you had just punched a nice, clean hole through the sonic barrier,” he said.
“Later on, I realised that this mission had to end in a letdown because the real barrier wasn’t in the sky but in our knowledge and experience of supersonic flight.”
Nonetheless, the exploit ranked alongside the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903 and Charles Lindbergh’s solo fight to Paris in 1927 as epic events in the history of aviation.
In 1950, General Yeager’s X-1 plane, which he christened Glamorous Glennis, honouring his wife, went on display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.
General Yeager said he was annoyed when people asked him if he had the ‘right stuff,’ since he felt it implied a talent he was born with.
“All I know is I worked my tail off learning to learn how to fly, and worked hard at it all the way,” he wrote.
“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.”
He enlisted in the Army Air Forces out of high school in September 1941, becoming an airplane mechanic.
He joined a flight program for enlisted men in July, 1942, figuring it would get him out of kitchen detail and guard duty.
He received his pilot wings and appointment as a flight officer in March, 1943 while at a base in Arizona, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant after arriving in England for training.
In 2016, when General Yeager was asked on Twitter what made him want to become a pilot, the reply was infused with cheeky levity.
“I was in maintenance and saw pilots had beautiful girls on their arms. I didn’t have dirty hands, so I applied.”
He flew P-51 Mustang fighters in the European theatre during World War II, and in March 1944, on his eighth mission, he was shot down over France by a German fighter plane and parachuted into woods with leg and head wounds.
But he was hidden by members of the French underground, made it to neutral Spain by climbing the snowy Pyrenees, carrying a severely wounded flier with him, and returned to his base in England.
On October 12, 1944, leading three fighter squadrons escorting bombers over Bremen, Germany, he downed five German planes, becoming an ace in a day. In November, he shot down another four planes in one day.
After the war, General Yeager was assigned to Muroc Army Air Base in California, where hot-shot pilots were testing jet prototypes.
He was chosen over more senior pilots to fly the Bell X-1 in a quest to break the sound barrier, and when he set out to do it, he could barely move, having broken two ribs a couple of nights earlier when he crashed into a fence while racing with his wife on horseback in the desert.
The Air Force kept the feat a secret during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, but in December 1947, Aviation Week magazine revealed that the sound barrier had been broken; the Air Force finally acknowledged it in June, 1948.
He commanded a fighter wing during the Vietnam War while holding the rank of colonel and flew 127 missions, mainly piloting Martin B-57 light bombers in attacking enemy troops and their supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
After serving as head of aerospace safety for the Air Force, he retired as a brigadier general in 1975.
His decorations included the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Bronze Star.
He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, from President Ronald Reagan in 1985.