Chuck Yeager with the X-1 plane. (US Air Force)
Chuck Yeager was an American original that produced many copies.
Yeager, who died in Los Angeles on Monday aged 97, is best known as the first man to break the sound barrier – with two broken ribs.
After drinking a few beers in a bar near the air force base where he was stationed, Yeager was injured when he hit a fence. He didn’t even think of letting anyone else do the barrier flight that was scheduled just two days later. He had a doctor’s tape on his ribs, and a friend and fellow pilot set up his X-1 so that he could close the cockpit. He then got into his X-1 and, after disengaging from a B-29 23,000 feet above the Mojave Desert, shot forward, eventually reaching 700 mph.
Anyone who would wonder why Yeager got drunk days before the biggest flight of his life and was riding a horse through the desert doesn’t have what Tom Wolfe called “the right stuff” in his cult book of the same name. Yeager had that vanishingly rare mix of technical expertise, courage and boredom with life outside the cockpit in spades. Other pilots of all kinds looked up to him in such a way that, according to Wolfe, they began to imitate his backwoods in West Virginia, which is why any member of the flying crowd can do a decent imitation of Yeager, even if they have never heard of him.
“It was,” wrote Wolfe, “the move of the fairest of all owners of the right material: Chuck Yeager.”
To understand Yeager and the men he flew with, one has to understand how dangerous it was to be a test pilot in the mid-20th century. According to Wolfe, 53 percent of the test pilots died in the cockpit – and these are just training accidents. Not included are those who died fighting during the various wars of the century. Yeager was not known to have been concerned about the prospect of dying in flight. That fearlessness was part of what made him so successful.
“I’m all right again – in one piece or in many pieces,” he told Time in 1949.
This wasn’t empty valor; By 1949, Yeager had already seen a number of deaths.
In 1941, at the age of 18, Yeager joined the Air Force to avoid getting his hands dirty as an army mechanic. Three years later it was shot down on its eighth mission with P-51 Mustangs over Germany-occupied France. Members of the French resistance found him and connected him to an American compatriot who had also been shot down. The two men hiked through the Pyrenees towards neutral Spain and eventually took shelter in a hut. German soldiers were made aware of their presence when Yeager’s partner hung his socks outside to dry. The Germans opened fire on the cabin and the two men narrowly fled through a window, but not before Yeager’s new friend was shot in the knee. Yeager amputated part of the man’s damaged leg and carried him through the mountains to safety.
Although most of the fighter pilots supported by the French Resistance were unable to return to the skies because they feared that if they were captured again they would endanger the identities of their helpers, Yeager received a special exemption from Dwight D. Eisenhower after he had somehow ended a meeting with the Allied commander.
“I just wanted to meet two people who believed they were getting a rough deal that would be sent home,” Eisenhower told Yeager, and another pilot who had been shot down, Yeager later recalled.
The accomplished pilot returned to his cockpit on October 12 and led three fighter squadrons in a bombing raid on Germany. He shot down five German planes and achieved the coveted status of ace in just one day. A month later, he crashed four planes in one day.
Aside from pushing aerospace technology to its limits on training flights, combat was considered the ultimate test for a fighter pilot, and Yeager took the chance to get back in the saddle when the Vietnam War broke out.
By then, a celebrity thanks to his record-breaking supersonic flight – but not yet the legend Tom Wolfe would make him when The Right Stuff was released in 1979 – Yeager commanded a fighter wing and flew 127 missions in the Vietnam War. He retired as brigadier general in the Air Force in 1975 before receiving a solemn promotion to major general in 2005. There will be no one else like him.
Rest in peace.