Americans, including Vice President Mike Pence, today remembered a West Virginia legend whose many legendary accomplishments can only be summed up with one phrase, “The Right Stuff.”
“The life of General Chuck Yeager will ever inspire,” Pence said during a memorial service in Charleston.
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. That phrase was the title of the Tom Wolfe historic novel and 1983 biopic that traced Yeager’s inspiration.
Yeager, the aviation hero, died at age 97 on Dec. 7. The memorial service for Yeager, who grew up humbly in Hamlin, Lincoln County, took place today at the Charleston Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Those who honored Yeager ranged from the vice president to the Oak Ridge Boys to actress Barbara Eden to flying buddies to childhood friends from Hamlin. Although the vice president appeared in person most of the other speakers had been recorded earlier.
“Chuck Yeager lived a great American life,” said Pence, the first speaker.
“We’ve all been inspired by the life and service and heroism of General Chuck Yeager.”
Much of Pence’s memorial sketched Yeager’s biography, starting with his upbringing in the West Virginia hills.
“He grew up in humble circumstances,” Pence said. “It’s been said he grew up so deep in the holler they had to pump in the daylight.”
The vice president summed up, “Like so many of our greatest heroes, he seemed like an ordinary American kid.”
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.
Actress Barbara Hershey, who played Glennis in “The Right Stuff” was one of the speakers at his memorial service. Hershey described the fears that the wives of test pilots lived with every day — that their husbands might not return.
Hershey recalled asking Yeager, “Did Glennis ever get emotional?”
“He said, no, she never gets emotional. She throws things, but she’d never get emotional. That still makes me laugh.”
Hershey concluded, “Boy, was that a life well lived, or what?”
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.
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.
“Don’t any of you ever forget — don’t let your children, your grandchildren, your grandchildren, on down the line — who this man is, who he was and all that he has done,” said Victoria Yeager, his wife for the last two decades of his life.