Chuck Yeager always had the “Right Stuff” regardless if NASA never selected him for the space program. Yeager was a decorated fighter pilot in World War II and became a test pilot and was the first man to exceed the speed of sound in level flight.
Yeager was born to a farming family on February 13, 1923, in Myra West, Virginia. He graduated from the Class of 1941 from Hamlin High School in West Virginia. Then, in September, he enlisted in the U.S. Army.
Yeager was assigned to the Army Air Corps as a private and was a mechanic at George Air Base in Victorville California. He wasn’t eligible for flight training due to his age and his lack of education. However, three months later the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S. lowered the eligibility requirements and helped by his 20/10 vision, he was accepted into the flight program.
He was commissioned as a reserve flight officer in Class 43C in March 1943 and became a pilot in the fighter command of the Eighth Air Force stationed in England. Assigned to the United Kingdom at RAF base in Leiston, Yeager flew P-51B Mustangs in combat with the 363d Fighter Squadron. (His aircraft was named the “Glamorous Glen” after his girlfriend Glennis who would become his wife in early 1945.)
On his eighth mission, he was shot down over France after claiming his first aerial victory. He escaped to Spain over the Pyrenees with the help of the French underground, the Maquis. He was awarded the Bronze Star for assisting a B-24 navigator, “Pat” Patterson, who had been wounded in the knee, over the Pyrenees to freedom.
After pilots were recovered from escapes, they generally were forbidden to fly combat missions again. But he pressed General Eisenhower and was allowed to resume combat duties in the air. He flew 61 missions over Europe during World War II and shot down 11.5 German aircraft, including five in one day. He flew his last combat mission in January of 1945 and was promoted to Captain. He was given his choice of assignments and became a test pilot at Wright Field.
After the war, Yeager flew test aircraft at Muroc Field — later Edwards Air Force Base. He was chosen to test-fly the secret experimental X-1 aircraft, built by the Bell Aircraft Company to test the capabilities of the human pilot and a fixed-wing aircraft against the severe aerodynamic stresses of sonic flight. On October 14, 1947, over Rogers Dry Lake in southern California, he flew the X-1 and became the first man to break the sound barrier, which was approximately 662 miles (1,066 km) per hour at that altitude. This feat was not announced to the public until June 1948.
After a Navy pilot broke Mach 2, Yeager and the X-1 team wanted to best the Navy’s record so Yeager continued to conduct test flights. On December 12, 1953, he established a world speed record of 1,650 miles (2,660 km or Mach 2.44) per hour in an X-1A rocket plane.
Yeager went back to being a fighter pilot and held several squadron and wing commands. From May 1955 to July 1957, he commanded the F-86H Sabre-equipped 417th Fighter-Bomber Squadron (50th Fighter-Bomber Wing) at Hahn AB, West Germany and at Toul-Rosieres Air Base, France. Then from 1957 to 1960, he commanded the F-100D Super Sabre-equipped 1st Fighter Day Squadron at George Air Force Base, California, and Morón Air Base, Spain. (Later, while still under Yeager’s command, the squadron was re-designated the 306th Tactical Fighter Squadron.)
Promoted to full Colonel in 1962, Yeager became the first commandant of the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School, which, after its redesignation from the USAF Flight Test Pilot School, produced astronauts for NASA and the USAF. Although he was testing and training pilots for NASA, he was deemed ineligible to become an astronaut since he only had a high school education.
In 1966, Yeager commanded the 405th Tactical Fighter Wing at Clark Air Base, in the Philippines, and would rotate for temporary duty (TDY) in South Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. There he flew another 127 combat missions, mostly in a Martin B-57 Canberra light bomber. On June 22, 1969, Yeager was promoted to brigadier general and was assigned in July of that year as the vice-commander of the Seventeenth Air Force. He retired from the air force with the rank of brigadier general in 1975.
On October 14, 2012, on the 65th anniversary of his breaking the sound barrier, Yeager then 89 years-old, did it again, this time flying as the co-pilot of an F-15 Eagle piloted by Captain David Vincent out of Nellis Air Force Base.
Yeager has had numerous awards and honors bestowed upon him but remained a humble, down-to-earth person. He remains a true American hero.