Way back in 1947, the same year the U.S. Air Force was born, a young captain strapped himself into an “airplane,” and, for 20 glorious seconds, flew faster than the speed of sound. Many aircraft fly faster than the speed of sound now, but none could have done it if Chuck Yeager had not paved the way.


Yeager’s Earlier Years

Chuck Yeager was born in 1923 in West “By God” Virginia. Graduating high school in 1941, Yeager joined the U.S. Army Air Forces on September 12 as an aircraft mechanic. After the U.S. entered WWII, Yeager clamored to fly. However, with only a high school education, commissioning was out of the question. Nevertheless, given the dearth of pilots, Yeager was promoted to flight officer (warrant officer, a rank the current Air Force does not have), and given flight training.


The War Calls

After completing initial flight training, the young flight officer was whisked off to Tonopah, Nevada, to train on the Bell P-39 Airacobras. From there, he shipped off to RAF Leiston, in the U.K., and joined the 363rd Fighter Squadron, flying the ubiquitous P-51 Mustang.

From 1943 to the end of the war, Chuck Yeager racked up an impressive 11.5 air-to-air victories. He was shot down once, in March 1944, over France. He made his way to Spain, then back to England, and was repatriated in May. He directly pestered General Eisenhower into putting him back in the air and flew out the rest of the war.

Chuck Yeager
Young Captain Charles Yeager, circa 1944. (Public Domain)


Test Pilot Career

Once the war was over, newly-commissioned Captain Chuck Yeager, along with his pregnant wife, was assigned to Wright Field, back in West “By God” Virginia. With 61 missions under his belt, plus the flight time he had accrued in training and his mechanic background, Chuck became a functional test (FT) pilot. FT pilots are a different breed. The Air Force certifies some pilots as FT, OT, or DT. Functional test flights happen after a plane receives major repairs. A plane’s first flight is a functional test and pilots must be accordingly certified. Operational test (OT) puts an aircraft through operational mission testing, verifying the aircraft can perform the mission it is tasked for. Developmental test (DT) pilots try out new systems on jets: Avionics upgrades, mission software, even experimental weapons, are all tested by DT pilots and crews.