Chuck Yeager, Pioneer of Supersonic Flight, Dies at Age 97

By Linnea Crowther | December 8, 2020

Chuck Yeager was a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general who was the first human to break the sound barrier.

 

Died: December 7, 2020

Details of death: Died at a hospital in Los Angeles at the age of 97.

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War Years

Yeager enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces just months before the U.S. entered World War II. Soon after his enlistment, Yeager’s supervisors discovered his unusually keen eyesight – his 20/10 vision made him a natural as a fighter pilot. Flying for the Allies in the war, Yeager became an ace, shooting down at least five enemy aircraft. Indeed, he has the special distinction of “ace in a day,” with five shot down in a single day, Oct. 12, 1944. Shot down over France, he escaped with the help of the French Resistance and was honored with the Bronze Star for aiding another airman in his escape.

 

Faster Than the Speed of Sound

As the war ended, Yeager had risen to second lieutenant and chose to stay with the Army Air Forces, soon to become its own military branch, renamed the U.S. Air Force. He became a test pilot at Muroc Army Air Field (now Edwards Air Force Base) in California. Highly skilled at his work, Yeager was chosen to be the test pilot who would attempt to fly faster than the speed of sound in his Bell X-1, named “Glamorous Glennis” after his wife, the former Glennis Faye Dickhouse, whom he had married in 1945. Two days before his revolutionary flight was planned, Yeager fell from a horse, breaking two ribs. He kept the injury quiet from his superiors, determined to go ahead with his flight.

Though Yeager needed help sealing the hatch of his plane, so painful was his injury, he still took off Oct. 14, 1947, becoming “the fastest man on Earth” as he broke the sound barrier by flying at Mach 1.07. His “Glamorous Glennis” X-1 is now displayed in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. In the years that followed, Yeager continued testing the boundaries of flight, achieving ever-greater speed records.

Brigadier General Yeager

In the 1950s and ’60s, Yeager commanded squadrons, rising to colonel and later to brigadier general. He worked in Spain, the Philippines, Pakistan and beyond before his 1975 retirement. In the years after his retirement, he continued flying for the Air Force and NASA in some capacity, as well as performing test flights on light aircraft for Piper Aircraft.

 

Portrayals and Honors

In 1983, Yeager was portrayed on film in “The Right Stuff,” played by Sam Shepard. Yeager also had a cameo in the film, playing a bartender at the watering hole where the local aviators gathered. Yeager was a member of the National Aviation Hall of Fame, and he was honored with the naming of Yeager Airport in Charleston, West Virginia. A bridge and a highway in his home state also were named after him. Awarded a Special Congressional Silver Medal in 1976, Yeager was ranked No. 5 on Flying Magazine’s 2013 list of “The 51 Heroes of Aviation.”

 

Yeager Speaks About Duty

“It’s your duty to fly the airplane. If you get killed in it, you don’t know anything about it anyway, so why worry about it? That’s the way you looked at it and, actually, duty is paramount. It’s that simple when you are a military guy. You don’t say, ‘I’m not going to do that—that’s dangerous.’ If it’s your duty to do it, that’s the way it is.” —from an interview with the Academy of Achievement