clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Yeager flew into history 50 years ago

Alone, he punched a hole in the sky at the dawn of the space age.

On an October day 50 years ago, hiding the pain of broken ribs, Air Force test pilot Chuck Yeager eased into the little X-1 rocket plane - known as the "orange beast" - and blasted toward the sound barrier.Some scientists feared the invisible wall of air would smash any airplane that tried to pierce it. The X-1 bucked, the needle on the airspeed indicator bouncing. But no matter - there was no safe way to bail out.

Then suddenly, Yeager was doing what no one had ever done before, what a British pilot had died

trying to do. Yeager was flying at 700 mph, slightly faster than the air could carry the shriek of his own speeding plane.

On the California desert below, an aircraft's sonic boom thundered into human ears for the first time.

And the race was on - to go faster and faster, until man could hurl himself into space. It was Oct. 14, 1947.

---

The right stuff, personified.

"I was at the right place, at the right time," Yeager says 50 years later, in an interview at his home in the Sierra Nevada. "I knew it had opened up the world to us, speed-wise, right into space."

Yeager's historic day is portrayed in the opening scenes of "The Right Stuff." The 1983 movie, based on the book by Tom Wolfe, chronicles America's space race with the Soviet Union, including Yeager's rib-breaking fall from a horse the night before his historic flight.

But the movie makes no mention of the fact that Yeager narrowly escaped serious injury the night of his flight, when he wiped out on a motorcycle, racing through the desert after one heck of a party.

Yeager was a test pilot's test pilot: Hard working. Hard playing. Hard drinking (though he later gave up the alcohol). Never showing fear. Never showing pain. Hiding emotions but speaking bluntly if there was a need.

A bit of a maverick who narrowly escaped being thrown out of the military a couple times. A war ace. A family man. A man whose fame stirred jealousy and spite in some colleagues.

But Yeager, now 74, says television commercials for car batteries brought him nearly as much fame as the X-1, "The Right Stuff" or his record as a World War II fighter ace.

Hailing from what Yeager calls the hillbilly country of West Virginia, the high school graduate set out to be an airplane mechanic but wound up a fighter pilot. Before shipping out, he met the woman he would marry, Glennis, at a dance for his outfit in Oroville, Calif.

In March 1944, Yeager was shot down over Nazi-occupied France. He escaped capture and made his way to freedom with the help of the French Resistance and the Spanish.

Returning to England in May 1944, he was supposed to be sent home - the fear was that pilots who had eluded capture would, if shot down again, reveal Resistance secrets. But Yeager fought to stay, finally getting permission from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower himself.

On Oct. 12, 1944, Yeager scored five kills, becoming the first ace in a day. On another mission, he shot down a Nazi jet - while flying a propeller-driven fighter.

His plane was named "Glamorous Glennis," after the girl he left behind. Many of his planes - including the X-1 - would carry that name.

At war's end, became a test pilot at what is now known as Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert of Southern California. He flew and evaluated scores of wildly different kinds of aircraft, narrowly escaping death several times.

But the X-1 was in a class by itself.

There were a dozen ways to die in the X-1, Yeager says. The stubby jet was strapped to the bottom of a bomber, then dropped at high altitude. The pilot climbed down from the bomber to the X-1 in flight, waited for its release, then ignited the rockets.

When it was over, "I had a feeling, `Well, that's done. We've finished this program. Now I can get on with the other nine programs I'm working on."'