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Chuck Yeager (1923 - 2020)

On October 12, 1944, Chuck Yeager became the first pilot in his group to shoot down five enemy aircraft in one day, making him “Ace in a Day”

Issue: Aero India 2021 SpecialBy Joseph Noronha

When Chuck Yeager first crossed the sound barrier in 1947, the flight was fraught with danger. Hence it is often ranked with epic feats such as the first flight by the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk in 1903 and solo flight by Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic in 1927. Yeager went on to break several other records during his illustrious career.

Charles (Chuck) Yeager was born on February 13, 1923, in Myra, West Virginia. Apart from hunting, he excelled at anything requiring mathematical ability, physical coordination or manual dexterity. He had unusually sharp vision that once helped him shoot a deer at 550m. Chuck’s career began in World War II as a private in the United States Army, assigned to the Army Air Forces in 1941. After serving as an aircraft mechanic, in September 1942, he entered enlisted pilot training and upon graduation as a fighter pilot was promoted to the rank of flight officer and was stationed in England flying P-51 Mustangs. He scored one victory before being shot down over France in March 1944. He was captured by the Germans, but managed to escape. Such escaped pilots were normally barred from combat flying, but Yeager put in an earnest appeal to fly again. His petition finally reached General Dwight Eisenhower who accepted his request. On October 12, 1944, Yeager became the first pilot in his group to shoot down five enemy aircraft in one day, making him “Ace in a Day”.

After the War, Yeager became a flight instructor and then a test pilot. It was a period when engineers were struggling to make aircraft fly supersonic. During World War II, many pilots had experienced unstable controls and structural mishaps as their jets approached Mach 1. It was almost as if a physical barrier prevented flight beyond the speed of sound. In fact, British test pilot Geoffrey de Havilland died when his DH108 jet disintegrated close to the sound barrier. In the US, Bell Aircraft Company’s secret X-1 aircraft was specially designed and built to test the capabilities of human beings and aircraft to withstand the severe aerodynamic stresses of high speed. It was shaped like a .50-calibre bullet for stability in transonic flight. Bell modified a huge B-29 Superfortress to lift an X-1 in its bomb bay to the planned launch altitude.

Chuck was chosen from among several volunteers for his flying skill and cool-headedness under extreme stress. At altitude, he had to get in through the X-1’s tiny side door, drop free of the B-29 and fire the rocket engines. He had only a few minutes’ worth of fuel (a mixture of liquid oxygen and alcohol). Then he would glide back to the Earth and land at Rogers Dry Lake in southern California. So the trials began, gradually increasing the speed. On the seventh powered flight, the controls suddenly ceased to function at .94 Mach due to shock waves. Chuck decelerated and landed safely. Jack Ridley, the Chief Engineer, advised him to control the aircraft using the horizontal stabilizer.

Two nights before the final flight, Yeager broke two ribs when he fell from a horse. However, he persuaded a doctor to tape up his ribs and kept quiet. On October 14, 1947, after being released from the B-29 at an altitude of 25,000 feet, Yeager flew the X-1 Glamorous Glennis (named after his wife) to Mach 1.05 at an altitude of 45,000 feet. He described it thus: “Suddenly the Mach needle began to fluctuate. It went up to .965 Mach – then tipped right off the scale… We were flying supersonic. And it was as smooth as a baby’s bottom; Grandma could be sitting up there sipping lemonade.” Yeager later said, “It took a damned instrument to tell me what I’d done. There should have been a bump in the road, something to let you know you’d just punched a nice clean hole through the sound barrier.” The ground control operators heard the first sonic boom ever produced on the Earth. When the achievement was publicized, Yeager gained worldwide fame and was awarded several prestigious flying trophies.

On December 12, 1953, Yeager set a new speed record of Mach 2.44. However, shortly after reaching this speed, he lost control of his jet at 80,000 feet due to inertia coupling. He dropped 51,000 feet in less than a minute before regaining control and landing. In 1969, Yeager was promoted to Brigadier General. He thus became one of the few who had risen from the ranks all the way to the top as a General in the USAF. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1973 and retired on March 1, 1975. Chuck’s flying career spanned more than 30 years and he flew more than 360 different types of aircraft. On October 14, 1997, at the age of 74, he flew a McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle past Mach 1 to mark the 50th anniversary of his epochal flight. And on October 14, 2012, on the 65th anniversary of the feat, he did it again at the age of 89, this time as co-pilot. Chuck Yeager died on December 7, 2020, at the age of 97.