Chuck Yeager, World War II ace, daring test pilot and legendary West Virginian, has died.
His place in history was secured in 1947 when he became the first pilot to blow past the speed of sound. Yeager’s daring and understated swagger personified “The Right Stuff” associated with the test pilots who followed in his footsteps to become the first astronauts in the American space program.
He thrilled West Virginians by buzzing under Charleston’s South Side Bridge in a Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star in 1948.
“General Chuck Yeager was an American hero. West Virginia’s native son was larger than life and an inspiration for generations of Americans,” U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., stated.
Echoing President Reagan’s tribute to the space shuttle Challenger crew, Senator Shelley Moore Capito said Yeager had “slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the face of God.”
“What an amazing life,” said Capito, R-W.Va.
Yeager’s wife, Victoria, announced his death on Twitter and highlighted his “legacy of strength, adventure and patriotism.” Victoria, who Yeager married in 2003, did not state a cause of death. Yeager was 97.
Fr @VictoriaYeage11 It is w/ profound sorrow, I must tell you that my life love General Chuck Yeager passed just before 9pm ET. An incredible life well lived, America’s greatest Pilot, & a legacy of strength, adventure, & patriotism will be remembered forever.
— Chuck Yeager (@GenChuckYeager) December 8, 2020
Charles Elwood Yeager was born in Myra, an unincorporated community in Lincoln County, where his father was a gas-well driller and the family farmed. The family moved to Hamlin, the county seat, when he was five. He was a young outdoorsman with strong interests in hunting and fishing.
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. His unusually keen vision and the United States’ entry into World War II provided his entry to flight training.
While stationed in England, Yeager flew P-51 mustangs but was shot down over France on his eighth mission. He escaped and returned to the air. On Oct. 12, 1944, Yeager downed five enemy aircraft in a single mission and finished the war credited with shooting down at least 12 German planes.
It was during this period that he began naming his planes “Glamorous Glennis,” after his first wife and the mother of Yeager’s four children. Glennis Yeager died in 1990.
In all, Yeager flew 64 combat missions.
After the war, Yeager remained in the military and became a test pilot at Muroc Army Air Field, now called Edwards Air Force Base. He was selected to fly a rocket-powered Bell XS-1 to research high-speed flight.
Two days before the scheduled flight, Yeager fell from a horse and broke two ribs. Worried about having the flight canceled, Yeager had his ribs taped by a civilian doctor and went ahead with the mission.
He broke the sound barrier on Oct. 14, 1947, flying the X-1 Glamorous Glennis at 700 miles an hour, Mach 1.06, at an altitude of 45,000 feet.
Because of the top-secret nature of the mission, Yeager’s feat was not announced to the public until months later in June, 1948. Now, the X-1 he flew that day is on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.
Yeager acted like it was no big deal.
“Anybody can fly faster than sound as long as he wants to so far as the physical effects are concerned,” The Associated Press quoted Yeager as saying in 1949. “The fact is, it’s no different than sitting in your armchair at home.”
Yeager set another speed record on Dec. 12, 1953, by flying two-and-a-half times the speed of sound in a Bell X-1A.
Symbols of Yeager’s fame are all over southern West Virginia. The gateway airport in Charleston bears his name, and his sculpted bust greets visitors in the terminal. Yeager Bridge on the West Virginia Turnpike leads crosses into Charleston. A generous academic scholarship at Marshall University is named for Yeager.
In 1985, President Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.
“Gen. Yeager was an American hero and a true West Virginia legend who broke barriers and changed history forever,” Gov. Jim Justice stated Monday evening.
Homer Hickam, the West Virginia author of “Rocket Boys, assessed Yeager as his idol. “He was the definition of greatness and my hero.”
Yeager continued sound barrier-breaking flights well into his life.
On Oct. 14, 1997, on the 50th anniversary of his historic flight, Yeager broke the sound barrier again, flying an F-15D Eagle.
As a co-pilot at age 89 on Oct. 14, 2012, on the 65th anniversary of breaking the sound barrier, Yeager did it again in an McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle.
“When he became the first pilot to break the sound barrier he challenged each of us to test the limits of what’s possible,” Manchin stated Monday night. “I am grateful to have gotten to know this legendary West Virginian and to call him my dear friend.”