Former United States Air Force officer, flying ace, and record-setting test pilot. Charles Elwood Yeager was born February 13, 1923, in Myra, West Virginia, He had two brothers, Roy and Hal Jr., and two sisters, Doris Ann (accidentally killed at age 2 by 6-year-old Roy playing with a shotgun and Pansy Lee. He graduated from high school in Hamlin, West Virginia, in June 1941. . His first experience with the military was as a teen at the Citizens Military Training Camp at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indianapolis, Indiana, during the summers of 1939 and 1940. On February 26, 1945, Yeager married Glennis Dickhouse, and the couple had four children.
Yeager’s career began in World War II as a private in the United States Army Air Force. After serving as an aircraft mechanic, in September 1942 he entered enlisted pilot training and upon graduation was promoted to the rank of flight officer (the World War II USAAF equivalent to warrant officer) and became a P-51 fighter pilot. Yeager enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) on September 12, 1941, and became an aircraft mechanic at George Air Force Base, Victorville, California. At enlistment, Yeager was not eligible for flight training because of his age and educational background, but the entry of the U.S. into World War II less than three months later prompted the USAAF to alter its recruiting standards. Having unusually sharp vision (a visual acuity rated 20/10), which once enabled him to shoot a deer at 600 yards (550 m), Yeager displayed natural talent as a pilot and was accepted for flight training. He received his wings and a promotion to flight officer at Luke Field, Arizona, where he graduated from class 43C on March 10, 1943. Assigned to the 357th Fighter Group at Tonopah, Nevada, he initially trained as a fighter pilot, flying Bell P-39 Airacobras (being grounded for seven days for clipping a farmer’s tree during a training flight) and shipped overseas with the group on November 23, 1943.
He was Stationed in the United Kingdom at RAF Leiston, and flew P-51 Mustangs in combat with the 363d Fighter Squadron. He named his aircraft Glamorous Glen after his girlfriend, Glennis Faye Dickhouse, who became his wife in February 1945. Yeager had gained one victory before he was shot down over France in his first aircraft (P-51B-5-NA s/n 43-6763) on March 5, 1944 during his eighth mission. He escaped to Spain on March 30 with the help of the Maquis (French Resistance) and returned to England on May 15, 1944. During his stay with the Maquis, Yeager assisted the guerrillas in duties that did not involve direct combat; he helped construct bombs for the group, a skill that he had learned from his father. He was awarded the Bronze Star for helping a B-24 navigator, “Pat” Patterson, who was shot in the knee during the escape attempt, to cross the Pyrenees. Yeager cut off the tendon by which Patterson’s leg was hanging below the knee, then tied off the leg with a spare shirt made of parachute silk.
Despite a regulation prohibiting “evaders” (escaped pilots) from flying over enemy territory again, the purpose of which was to prevent a second capture from compromising resistance groups, Yeager was reinstated to flying combat. He had joined another evader, fellow P-51 pilot 1st Lt Fred Glover, in speaking directly to the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, on June 12, 1944. With Glover pleading their case, they argued that because the Allies had invaded France and the Maquis were by then openly fighting the Nazis alongside Allied troops, if Yeager or Glover were shot down again, there was little about those who had previously helped them evade capture that could be revealed to the enemy.
Eisenhower, after gaining permission from the War Department to decide the requests, concurred with Yeager and Glover. Yeager later credited his postwar success in the Air Force to this decision, saying that his test pilot career followed naturally from his having been a decorated combat pilot, along with having been an aircraft mechanic before attending pilot school. In part, because of his maintenance background, he also frequently served as a maintenance officer in his flying units.
Yeager demonstrated outstanding flying skills and combat leadership. On October 12, 1944, he became the first pilot in his group to make “ace in a day,” downing five enemy aircraft in a single mission. Two of these kills were scored without firing a single shot: when he flew into firing position against a Messerschmitt Bf 109, the pilot of the aircraft panicked, breaking to starboard and colliding with his wingman. Yeager said both pilots bailed out. He finished the war with 11.5 official victories, including one of the first air-to-air victories over a jet fighter, a German Messerschmitt Me 262 that he shot down as it was on final approach for landing.
Yeager was commissioned a second lieutenant while at Leiston, and was promoted to captain before the end of his tour. He flew his 61st and final mission on January 15, 1945, and returned to the United States in early February. As an evader, he received his choice of assignments and, because his new wife was pregnant, chose Wright Field to be near his home in West Virginia. His high number of flight hours and maintenance experience qualified him to become a functional test pilot of repaired aircraft, which brought him under the command of Colonel Albert Boyd, head of the Aeronautical Systems Flight Test Division.
After the war, Yeager remained in the Air Force becoming a test pilot at Muroc Army Air Field (now Edwards Air Force Base), following graduation from Air Materiel Command Flight Performance School (Class 46C). the USAAF selected Yeager to fly the rocket-powered Bell XS-1 in a NACA program to research high-speed flight. In 1947, he became the first pilot confirmed to have exceeded the speed of sound in level flight. As the first human to officially break the sound barrier, on October 14, 1947, he flew the experimental Bell X-1 at Mach 1 at an altitude of 45,000 ft (13,700 m), for which he won both the Collier and Mackay trophies in 1948. He then went on to break several other speed and altitude records.
Yeager retired from the Air Force at Norton Air Force Base in 1975 after serving over 33 years on active duty, although he continued to occasionally fly for the USAF and NASA as a consulting test pilot at Edwards AFB. Yeager made a cameo appearance in the movie The Right Stuff (1983). He played “Fred,” a bartender at “Pancho’s Place”, His own role was played by Sam Shepherd. During the 1980s, Yeager was connected to General Motors, publicizing AC Delco, the company’s automotive parts division. In 1986 he was invited to drive the Chevrolet Corvette pace car for the 70th running of the Indianapolis 500. In 1988, Yeager was again invited to drive the pace car, this time at the wheel of an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. In 1986, President Reagan appointed Yeager to the Rogers Commission that investigated the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Yeager set several light general aircraft performance records for speed, range, and endurance. Most notable were flights conducted on behalf of Piper Aircraft. On one such flight, Yeager performed an emergency landing as a result of fuel exhaustion. On another, he piloted Piper’s turboprop Cheyenne 400LS to a time-to-height record: FL350 (35,000 feet) in 16 minutes, exceeding the climb performance of a Boeing 737 at gross weight. Yeager also served as a technical adviser for three Electronic Arts flight simulator video games including Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Trainer, Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Trainer 2.0, and Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat. In 2009, Yeager participated in the documentary The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club, a profile of his friend Pancho Barnes.
On October 14, 1997, on the 50th anniversary of his historic flight past Mach 1, he flew a new Glamorous Glennis III, an F-15D Eagle, past Mach 1. The chase plane for the flight was an F-16 Fighting Falcon piloted by Bob Hoover, a longtime test, fighter and aerobatic pilot who had been Yeager’s wingman for the first supersonic flight. This was Yeager’s last official flight with the U.S. Air Force. He also received the Tony Jannus Award for his achievements. On October 14, 2012, on the 65th anniversary of breaking the sound barrier, Yeager repeated the experience in a McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle piloted by Captain David Vincent out of Nellis Air Force Base.
Chuck Yeager received many honours during his career. In 1966, Yeager was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame and In 1973, Yeager was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. In December 1975, the U.S. Congress awarded Yeager a silver medal “equivalent to a noncombat Medal of Honor … for contributing immeasurably to aerospace science by risking his life in piloting the X-1 research airplane faster than the speed of sound on October 14, 1947.” President Gerald Ford presented the medal to Yeager in a ceremony at the White House on December 8, 1976. Yeager Airport in Charleston, West Virginia, is also named in his honor. The Interstate 64/Interstate 77 bridge over the Kanawha River in Charleston is also named in his honor. Yeager also has a marker along Corridor G (part of U.S. 119) in his home Lincoln County, West Virginia and part of the highway is named the Yeager Highway. Yeager is an honorary board member of the humanitarian organization Wings of Hope. In 2009, Governor Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver announced that Yeager would be one of 13 California Hall of Fame inductees in The California Museum’s yearlong exhibit. Flying Magazine ranked Yeager number 5 on its 2013 list of The 51 Heroes of Aviation; he is the highest-ranked living person on the list. The Civil Air Patrol, the volunteer auxiliary of the USAF, awards the Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager Award to its Senior Members as part of its Aerospace Education program. The General Chuck Yeager Cadet Squadron (SER-FL-237), associated with the Florida Wing, Civil Air Patrol, and based in Brandon, Florida, is also named in his honor.