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Chuck Yeager, legendary driver who broke the sound barrier, dies at 97

Chuck Yeager, the legendary pilot who helped make the United States a world leader in air and space, died Monday at the age of 97.

As an Air Force test pilot, Yeager was the first person to break the sound barrier, in October 1947. Six years later, he became one of the first to fly twice the speed sound. Towards the end of his career as a test pilot, Yeager helped train America’s first astronauts.

But Yeager didn’t just excel at what he called “research flight”. He was also a formidable warrior. It shot down at least a dozen German planes during World War II and two decades later flew 127 combat missions over Vietnam. He led fighter squadrons in Germany and South Korea during the Cold War.

He remained busy during his retirement – advising on films and video games, serving on government committees and giving hundreds of speeches. He continued to fly until the very end of his life, accumulating more than 17,000 flight hours on more than 150 types of aircraft. At the start of 2017, he was still working in a propeller taildragger.

Charles Elwood Yeager was born February 13, 1923 in Myra, West Virginia. His parents were farmers. The second of five children, he grew up hunting and fishing and later claimed that at the age of 12 he had already killed 26 black bears.

As a child, Yeager’s only exposure to planes was seeing them fly overhead. “I wasn’t interested in airplanes,” he said in an interview in 1991. But he had great eyesight, a math wit and a hunter’s instinct – qualities shared by many of the best pilots in the world. fight.

But late in life, Yeager attributed his success to his father’s example. Albert Yeager was an “honest guy,” Yeager said. “His word was his link.” He taught young Chuck and his siblings to “finish what you started”. “We were very severely disciplined as children if we didn’t do our job.”

Yeager enlisted in the Army Air Corps, the predecessor of the Air Force, in September 1941. He trained as an aircraft mechanic. And in the spring of 1942, he flew for the first time – as a passenger on a twin-engine trainer aircraft he had helped maintain. He vomited. “I didn’t particularly care,” Yeager said seven decades later.

He quickly changed his mind and prospered as a combat pilot flying P-51 fighters over Europe. On March 4, 1944, he shot down his first enemy aircraft, a German Me-109. “For me it was a lot easier than I thought it would be,” he said later.

The next day, three German fighters made the jump on Yeager. “The plane and I went our separate ways,” he joked later. He parachuted to the ground with bullets lodged in one leg and metal fragments embedded in one hand – injuries he described as “minor”.

German troops were looking for him. “Obviously you have to hide.” He spent a day deep in the woods. After the Germans abandoned the search, Yeager took a chance and approached a French lumberjack.

Fortunately for Yeager, the Frenchman was sympathetic. “He knew I needed some kind of help. Yeager’s rescuer handed the American over to the French Resistance, who took him across the Pyrenees to neutral Spain, where the United States exchanged valuable gasoline for the pilot’s safe return to Britain . “Yeah, when you’re downed you’re supposed to stay down,” her commander joked.

“The French saved my life,” Yeager recalled in 2017. “At least one Frenchwoman was happy – you’ll never guess why,” he added, apparently referring to his future second wife, whose last name is French.

Yeager returned to combat in time to take cover for the Allied invasion of German-occupied France in June 1944. “It is your duty to fly the plane,” he explained. “If you’re killed there, you don’t know anyway.

“Duty,” Yeager said, “is paramount.”

When the war ended, Yeager became one of the government’s first test pilots. Previously, research flight was the responsibility of private pilots working for large aircraft manufacturers.

Taking off from a dry lake bed in California – the future site of Edwards Air Force Base – Yeager and his fellow test pilots daily advanced the science of flight, then still in its infancy. “We weren’t getting free homes or notoriety,” Yeager recalls decades later. “We were working our tails for $ 250 a month. Many of us died in the process. “

One of Yeager’s first challenges was to understand a phenomenon he and other combat pilots had discovered during World War II. During a steep dive, the P-51s and other fighters would begin to shake violently at about 80% of the speed of sound, or about 760 miles per hour at ground level.

Turbulence has come to be known as the “sound barrier”. It was an obstacle that Yeager was the first to overcome. Bell Aerospace built the special X-1 rocket plane specifically to break through the sound barrier. Its liquid fuel engine looked like an ice bomb. Its strong and thin wing reduces drag. The X-1 was a tough and volatile speed demon. “It was a pleasure to fly,” Yeager said.

But the secret of the orange-painted rocket plane, Yeager discovered, was the movable horizontal stabilizers at its rear. As the X-1 approached the speed of sound, it tended to pitch up and lose power. Yeager therefore tilted the horizontal stabilizer down one degree to force the nose down. “We have control of this thing now,” he recalls, .

Crossing the sound barrier for the first time on October 14, 1947, Yeager opened up a world of possibilities. Supersonic fighter jets and airliners quickly followed. Building on the accomplishments of Yeager and other test pilots, in the mid-1950s, the Air Force launched a space aimed at putting men into orbit by 1966 inside of a rocket-propelled “space plane” called the X-20. allegedly launched vertically on top of a rocket thruster, orbited Earth to spy on other countries or even drop bombs, then returned to the planet’s surface and landed like a plane. It was like a military version of the Space Shuttle – 20 years before the Space Shuttle first flew.

Returning to the test community after several years in command of fighter squadrons in Europe, Yeager set several flight records in the early 1960s. In December 1963, he ejected from an out of control F-104, ending his record attempts.

At around the same time, Yeager was helping train some of the Air Force’s first astronauts. And he remembered being “disappointed” when, in 1963, President John F. Kennedy canceled the X-20. From then on, NASA, rather than the military, would oversee the US space .

As recently as 1991, Yeager was still bitter about the decision. If the government had stuck with the X-20, “we would be 15 years ahead of what we are now” in space, Yeager said.

In 1966, the famous test pilot returned to war – this time flying B-57 bombers over Vietnam from a base in the Philippines. In January 1968, North Korean troops seized the naval intelligence vessel USS Pueblo, triggering an international crisis. The Air Force sent Yeager to South Korea with an F-4 fighter wing as a show of force. Retiring from the Air Force as Brigadier General in 1975, Yeager participated in air shows, fended off a plea to enter politics, and advised the cast and crew of the 1983 hit film . Good things.

Actor and playwright Sam Shepard portrayed Yeager in the film. Shepard and Yeager spent time together there. “I got to talk to him about the plane and all that,” Shepard recalls. “And he said, it’s not true that you’re not afraid. You know, is part of what you assume is that you’re able to cope with it, you know.

“I rode with him once in a little Piper Cub over the desert because, you know, if I’m going to crash I might as well go down with the tallest pilot in the world,” Shepard added.

Moving to California, Yeager gave hundreds of speeches, advised filmmakers, video game developers and the government at times … and continued to fly. In 2005, he flew a WWII-era P-51 fighter in a race with one of the Air Force’s leading F-22 stealth fighters.

Yeager joked that he “won the first mile, but after that …”

But despite all of his flying accomplishments, Yeager expressed the greatest passion for women in his life. He had named his P-51 fighter the X-1 rocket plane in which he had broken the sound barrier “Glamorous Glenn” and “Glamorous Glennis” in honor of his first wife. Glennis Yeager, née Dickhouse, died of cancer in 1990 at the age of 66. In 2003, Yeager, then 80, married actress Victoria Scott D’Angelo, then 41. It was a controversial marriage. Yeager’s four grown children sued to take control of the pilot’s estate. They lost. “It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks,” Yeager said of D’Angelo. “I LOVE her. I married her. She is my wife.”

Asked what it was like to fly faster than the speed of sound in an F-15 fighter, Yeager joked that “it would never replace sex.”

On Monday evening, Victoria Yeager announced the death of her husband, writing on Twitter: “It is with deep sadness, I must tell you that my lifelong sweetheart, General Chuck Yeager, passed away just before 9pm ET. An incredible life well lived, America’s greatest pilot and a legacy of strength, adventure and patriotism will be forever remembered.

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