World

Pilot Chuck Yeager, 1st to break sound barrier, dead at 97

Chuck Yeager, the steely test pilot immortalized in The Right Stuff who took aviation to the doorstep of space by becoming the first person to break the sound barrier, died Monday at the age of 97.

In 1947, 24-year-old Yeager pushed his rocket plane past 1,000 km/h

U.S. air force test pilot Chuck Yeager, who on Oct. 14, 1947 became the first man to break the sound barrier, poses beside the plane in which he did it, the Bell X-1, nicknamed Glamorous Glennis in honour of his wife. (United States Air Force/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Retired air force Brig.-Gen. Charles (Chuck) Yeager, the Second World War fighter pilot ace and quintessential test pilot who showed he had the "right stuff" when in 1947 he became the first person to fly faster than sound, has died. He was 97.

Yeager died Monday, his wife, Victoria Yeager, said on his Twitter account: "It is w/ profound sorrow, I must tell you that my life love General Chuck Yeager passed just before 9 pm ET. An incredible life well lived, America's greatest Pilot, & a legacy of strength, adventure, & patriotism will be remembered forever."

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement, calling the death "a tremendous loss to our nation."

"Gen. Yeager's pioneering and innovative spirit advanced America's abilities in the sky and set our nation's dreams soaring into the jet age and the space age. He said, 'You don't concentrate on risks. You concentrate on results. No risk is too great to prevent the necessary job from getting done,"' Bridenstine said in his statement.

"In an age of media-made heroes, he is the real deal," Edwards Air Force Base historian Jim Young said in August 2006 at the unveiling of a bronze statue of Yeager.

He was "the most righteous of all those with the right stuff," said Maj.-Gen. Curtis Bedke, commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield: 

Yeager, from a small town in the hills of West Virginia, flew for more than 60 years, including piloting an F-15 to near 1,600 km/h at Edwards in October 2002 at age 79.

"Living to a ripe old age is not an end in itself. The trick is to enjoy the years remaining," he said in Yeager: An Autobiography.

"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."

On Oct. 14, 1947, Yeager, then a 24-year-old captain, pushed an orange, bullet-shaped Bell X-1 rocket plane past 1,000 km/h to break the sound barrier, at the time a daunting aviation milestone.

"Sure, I was apprehensive," he said in 1968. "When you're fooling around with something you don't know much about, there has to be apprehension. But you don't let that affect your job."

The modest Yeager said in 1947 he could have gone even faster had the plane carried more fuel. He said the ride "was nice, just like riding fast in a car."

Yeager nicknamed the rocket plane, and all his other aircraft, "Glamorous Glennis" for his wife, who died in 1990.

WATCH | Chuck Yeager on his historic 1947 flight:

How Chuck Yeager started flying

Archives

36 years ago
2:14
In July 1985, Chuck Yeager spoke to Midday's Valerie Pringle about some of his experiences as a test pilot. 2:14

Yeager's feat was kept top secret for about a year when the world thought the British had broken the sound barrier first.

"It wasn't a matter of not having airplanes that would fly at speeds like this. It was a matter of keeping them from falling apart," Yeager said.

Sixty-five years later to the minute, on Oct. 14, 2012, Yeager commemorated the feat, flying in the back seat of an F-15 Eagle as it broke the sound barrier at more than 9,144 metres above California's Mojave Desert.

Canadian astronaut, Gov. Gen. Julie Payette: 

His exploits were told in Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff and the 1983 film it inspired, in which he was portrayed by actor Sam Shepard, who died in 2017.

"Chuck Yeager redefined the possible," U.S. President-elect Joe Biden tweeted early Tuesday. "Where others saw limits, he saw opportunity and never stopped pushing the boundaries of flight. Above all, he was a patriot who dedicated his life to serving our nation." 

Yeager was born on Feb. 23, 1923, in Myra, a tiny community on the Mud River deep in an Appalachian hollow about 60 kilometres southwest of Charleston. The family later moved to Hamlin, the county seat. His father was an oil and gas driller and a farmer.

Retired air force Brig.-Gen. Charles Yeager talks to members of the media in October 2012 following a re-enactment flight commemorating his breaking of the sound barrier 65 years earlier, at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. (Isaac Brekken/The Associated Press)

"What really strikes me looking over all those years is how lucky I was, how lucky, for example, to have been born in 1923 and not 1963 so that I came of age just as aviation itself was entering the modern era," Yeager said in a December 1985 speech at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

"I was just a lucky kid who caught the right ride."

Yeager enlisted in the Army Air Corps after graduating from high school in 1941. He later regretted that his lack of a college education prevented him from becoming an astronaut.

Shot down over France

He started off as an aircraft mechanic and, despite becoming severely airsick during his first airplane ride, signed up for a program that allowed enlisted men to become pilots.

Yeager shot down 13 German planes on 64 missions during the Second World War, including five on a single mission. He was once shot down over German-held France but escaped with the help of French partisans.

After the war, he became a test pilot beginning at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

Among the flights he made after breaking the sound barrier was one on Dec. 12. 1953, when he flew an X-1A to a record of more than 2,575 km/h. He said he had gotten up at dawn that day and went hunting, bagging a goose before his flight. That night, he said, his family ate the goose for dinner.

Yeager and actor Barbara Hershey attend a special 20th anniversary screening and DVD release of The Right Stuff at the Egyptian Theatre on June 9, 2003 in Hollywood. (Robert Mora/Getty Images)

Yeager never forgot his roots and West Virginia named bridges, schools and Charleston's airport after him.

"My beginnings back in West Virginia tell who I am to this day," Yeager wrote.

"My accomplishments as a test pilot tell more about luck, happenstance and a person's destiny. But the guy who broke the sound barrier was the kid who swam the Mud River with a swiped watermelon or shot the head off a squirrel before going to school."

Yeager was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star, the Air Medal and the Purple Heart.

President Harry S. Truman awarded him the Collier air trophy in December 1948 for his breaking the sound barrier. He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly:

Yeager retired from the Air Force in 1975 and moved to a ranch in Cedar Ridge in Northern California, where he continued working as a consultant to the air force and Northrop Corp. 

He married Glennis Dickhouse of Oroville, Calif., on Feb. 26, 1945. She died of ovarian cancer in December 1990. They had four children: Donald, Michael, Sharon and Susan. Yeager married 45-year-old Victoria Scott D'Angelo in 2003.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story said Yeager piloted an X-15 to near 1,600 km/h in October 2002. In fact, it was an F-15.
    Dec 08, 2020 7:35 AM ET

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?

now