Most pilots know Chuck Yeager for being one of the greatest aviators of all times, but few have heard how the day he broke the sound barrier unfolded. This is the story of the life of a war hero, an aviation daredevil pioneer and the day that would change the face of aviation.
Charles Elwood Yeager was born on February 13, 1923 and grew up in Virginia, not far from Charleston. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941, shortly after graduating from high school which was about two months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He later regretted that his lack of college education prevented him from becoming an astronaut. Charles started as an aircraft mechanic but soon signed up for a program that allowed enlisted men to become pilots. In normal times, a college degree would have been required for aspiring pilots and officers but, as WWII was starting, the need for pilots was so high that he was accepted on the basis of his remarkable eyesight and intuitive grasp of aeronautical engineering. Funny enough, he became severely airsick during his first flight and thought to himself that having given up his aircraft mechanic job to become a pilot was a big mistake.
Yeager soon showed unusually good piloting abilities and obtained his pilot certificates shortly before being sent to Europe during World War II. He was first positioned in Leiston, England, flying a notorious P-51 Mustang he named “Glamorous Glen” after his Californian fiancée’s first name Glennis. Just a day after he shot his first enemy fighter over Berlin, his airplane was severely damaged by a German fighter near Bordeaux, France. The enemy’s gunfire had slammed into his aircraft, severing the flight control cables which made the airplane uncontrollable. The 21-year-old managed to parachute out of the Mustang but was then helplessly hanging from his sulk canopy at 18.000 feet as one of the German fighters turned his plane around and dove on the vulnerable pilot with the intent of finishing him off. Luckily, the German pilot was so focused on his deadly mission that he didn’t spot an American Mustang closing on his tail. The German fighter burst into a fireball and Yeager was saved. He landed in a pine-tree forest in an occupied area in the South-West of France.
He was soon met by French people from the secret Resistance who had spotted his parachute in the distance. They brought him civilian clothes and hid him in a barn. Thanks to the Resistance network, which enabled over 3.000 Allied airmen to disguise their identities and escape German-occupied western Europe, he was soon transported to the British fortress of Gibraltar and flown back to England. During his escape with the French Resistance, he not only coordinated several attacks on the German occupation and blew several bridges to slow-down their progress, but he also had to perform field-surgery in an attempt to save a comrade by amputating one of his leg with a penknife. The latter was left beside a road and survived the war.
Because of the possibility of being shot down again and tortured into revealing secrets about the Resistance, pilots who escaped from France were not supposed to return to combat. Eager to keep fighting, Yeager spoke to every high officer he could find and got to plead his case to the Supreme Allied Commander D. Eisenhower himself, who later became the 34th President of the United States of America.
Having successfully convinced his hierarchy which was impressed of seeing someone turning down a chance to go home, Chuck Yeager was soon back into combat in England and became a “fighter ace” in a single day. Ace normally refers to fighter pilots who have shot down at least 5 enemy aircraft in air combat during their military career. Yeager became an ace in a single mission after shooting 3 German fighters and startling another German pilot who rolled over in fright without paying attention to his surroundings and collided with his wingman who was flying parallel to him. Yeager nearly repeated his ace-in-a-day stunt in a November air battle in which he downed four more German fighters.
After World War II, Chuck Yeager was selected by the army to become a test pilot in an air-force base in Ohio. In 1947, he was chosen to pilot the rocket-powered Bell X1 airplane in an effort to break the sound barrier. The previous attempts to break the sound barrier were not encouraging: British pilot Geoffrey de Havilland Jr died in 1946 when his experimental aircraft disintegrated in the air while approaching Mach .94, and previous tests of the very airplane he was supposed to fly failed dramatically. There was soon a general belief that no airplane airframe could resist going beyond the speed of sound and that any airplane would just disintegrate as if it was hitting an invisible brick wall in the sky.
Despite the fact that many of his colleagues believe he was doomed to be blasted to pieces, Yeager accepted the challenged and prepared for the big day. Two days before the test flight was scheduled to take place, Yeager was riding a horse with his wife at night when he was tossed off and broke two ribs. In pain, he had himself taped-up by a veterinarian friend who pledged to keep the mishap secret. Fearing his record-bearing flight would be cancelled, he decided not to tell his hierarchy about the event and turned up for the flight with broken ribs. Because of the fractures, his movement was limited, and he couldn’t reach up to close the cockpit hatch. He eventually managed to close it with a piece of broomstick an engineer had sawed off for that purpose. No one noticed anything.
Soon, Chuck was up in the air, as the orange bullet-shaped Bell X-1 (named again Glamorous Glennis!) had been dropped from an airlift bomber. He fired up the rocket engine and broke the sound barrier minutes later, reaching a top speed of about Mach 1.07, equivalent to about 700 MPH at 43.000 feet. Yeager said in 1947 that he could have gone faster had his aircraft carried more fuel! He broke the sound barrier and showed the World that a human-made flying machine could make it without disintegrating, paving the way for the modern supersonic military and civilian jet era. In the context of Cold War, his milestone was not made public until about 8 months later, when he acquired worldwide fame. Yeager was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star, the Air Medal and the Purple Heart. President Harry S. Truman awarded him the Collier air trophy in December 1948 for breaking the sound barrier.
Yeager kept working as a test pilot in the following years and fought in Vietnam. He retired from the Air Force in 1975 and sadly passed away a few weeks ago. In one of his memoirs, he wrote: “I haven’t yet done everything, but by the time I’m finished, I won’t have missed much. If I auger in crash tomorrow, it won’t be with a frown on my face. I’ve had a ball.”
Well, dear Mister Yeager, the world had a ball watching you accomplish all these exploits and without you, aviation will never be the same.
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