Last week, the man who broke the sound barrier, Chuck Yeager, made his final flight into the “wild blue yonder.” He had led a remarkable life and participated in one of the great moments in the history of flight.
On October 14, 1947, Yeager was strapped into an experimental Bell X-1 rocket plane attached to the belly of a B-29 bomber. At 20,000 feet he was released over the Mojave Desert and dropped silently for a few seconds, then he lit the engines of the experimental rocket plane and within a few more seconds was flying at 700 miles per hour and reaching the border of outer space.
It was the first time in history that a human being moved through the air faster than the speed of sound. And the air burst with a loud boom at that moment. Everything else in the history of modern military, civilian and space flight finds its genesis in that moment.
That is what most people remember about Chuck Yeager, but there is more. There is an equally intriguing story that preceded that moment in October 1947. You see, he had been a fighter pilot during WWII. This is the rest of that story.
Toward the end of WWII, the Germans had developed a jet fighter plane that was much faster than any the allies had. It was called the Messerschmitt Me-262. It was wreaking havoc on allied aircraft, bombers and fighters alike.
Yeager recounted on his Twitter feed a while back that the “First time I saw a jet, I shot it down…not very sportman-like, but what the hell.”
In his autobiography, he described what happened that day. He said that the Me-262 had slowed down to make a landing, and he was able to catch up with it as it was over the runway. He opened up on it and took it out. That meant that there was one less Me-262 to make life difficult for his brother pilots.
Yeager did a lot more during his time as a P-52 Mustang fighter pilot in WWII as well. He is credited with shooting down 12 enemy aircraft during the war. He shot down five of those enemy fighters during the course of one very busy day in the skies over Europe.
But Yeager, himself was shot down over France as well. What happened then is an even more intense and incredible story. He was rescued by the French Underground. They guided him on a very dangerous trek across the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. On his own, he then made it to Gibraltar, which was held by the British. From there he was sent back to England.
Yeager wanted to get back into the air and into the fight, but the military had a rule that pilots who had been shot down and escaped could not go back into the air for fear that if they were shot down again and tortured, they might reveal the names of the people in the underground and their locations and methods.
This did not sit well with Yeager.
Yeager put up a fight to override this rule. He was like the widow in the scriptures who kept knocking at the unjust judge’s door until he relented to hear her case. He finally got an opportunity to speak to General Dwight D. Eisenhower about it. Yeager recounted in his autobiography that Eisenhower was amazed at such temerity.
Yeager wrote that Eisenhower said, “I just wanted to meet [the guy] who thinks [he’s] getting a raw deal being sent home.”
Yeager became the only such pilot during the war to be given permission to fly again, which he did until the end of the war.
Yeager served in the Army Air Corps from 1941-1947 and from 1947-1975 in the United States Air Force, a total of 34 years. He served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam and retired as a Brigadier General. His many awards include:
- The Air Force Distinguished Service Medal
- The Army Distinguished Service Medal
- 2 Silver Stars
- 2 Legions of Merit
- 3 Distinguished Flying Crosses
- A Bronze Star Medal
- The Purple Heart
- And others
This man from West Virginia would go on as a test pilot to fly many experimental and future jet planes, including the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, which flies at an unbelievable 2,000 mph. His many accomplishments as a test pilot opened up the exploration of space.
We honor the career accomplishments and the many-faceted service that Chuck Yeager gave to both the nation and to the aeronautical sciences. May he rest in peace.
Learn more in the video below.Whizzco