RIP Chuck Yeager (1923-2020), first to break through the sound barrier

An aviation legend is no more. Yesterday, on Pearl Harbor Day, Brigadier General Charles Elwood “Chuck” Yeager passed away at the ripe old age of 97.

This is the scene in the movie “The Right Stuff”, Tom Wolfe’s paean to American aerospace pioneers, in which Sam Shepard portrays Yeager’s historic feat of October 14, 1947 — where he became the first man to fly supersonic and live to tell the tale. (He did so in an experimental rocket plane, the Bell X-1.)

A few anecdotes about this remarkable man:

  • of distant German ancestry (Yeager is an anglicization of Jäger = hunter), he grew up in rural West Virginia. His unusual 20:10 vision, which made him a crack huntsman in his youth, later allowed him to spot enemy fighters way before anybody else.
  • he was one of the first pilots to shoot down a jet fighter — a Luftwaffe Messerschmidt Me-262 that was on final landing approach. (An Me-262 was most vulnerable during take-off and landing.)
  • downed over France after 8 aerial victories, he managed to reach neutral Spain with the help of the Résistance and hence made it back to England
  • while technically on leave and forbidden from flying combat missions after that[*], during a training flight he spotted a Junkers Ju-88 attacking a damaged B-17 Flying Fortress. Yeager shot down the Ju-88 and thus rescued the crew of the B-17, but upon landing pulled out his gun camera film and handed it to the trainee so he could claim the aerial victory, and Yeager would not “violate parole”.
  • He named his plane “Glamorous Glennis” after his wife as he was convinced this would bring him good luck
  • He re-enacted his historical “sound barrier busting” flight solo on its 50th anniversary, and as co-pilot on its 65th anniversary (at age 89)
  • in the movie “The Right Stuff”, he has a brief cameo as a bartender at Pancho’s Bottom Riding Club, the bar where test pilots used to hang out
  • on May 18, 1953, when his good friend Jacqueline Cochran became the first woman to break the sound barrier (in an F-86 Sabre) Yeager flew as her wingman.
  • late in life, he became an avid social media user.

“I haven’t yet done everything, but by the time I’m finished, I won’t have missed much,” he wrote. “If I auger in (crash) tomorrow, it won’t be with a frown on my face. I’ve had a ball.”

Yeager, an autobiography” (with Leo Janos, 1986)

Here’s to a great ‘hunter’.

[*] this arrangement existed in an attempt to protect Résistance members engaged in pilot rescue. (“The pilots they helped escape won’t fight you again.”)

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