75 years ago, test pilot Chuck Yeager went supersonic
“Rules,” Chuck Yeager once said, “are made for people who aren’t willing to make up their own.” Armed with courage, confidence, and the talent to back it up, Yeager continually defied the odds and experts on his way to becoming a legend.
Yeager was already a decorated World War II combat fighter when he volunteered to test-fly the experimental Bell X-1 rocket plane and explore the possibility of supersonic flight. And 75 years ago, on October 14, 1947, he was the first to fly faster than the speed of sound.
“There’s no such thing as a natural-born pilot,” Yeager said, but he displayed an obvious knack for it. In September 1941, shortly after graduating high school, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, where he first served as an airplane mechanic. Yeager said he applied to flight training because “I saw pilots had beautiful girls on their arms and didn’t have dirty hands.”
The U.S. entered WWII with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and the young pilot eventually flew 64 combat missions in his P-51 Mustang, recording 13 enemy kills.
Shot down over France while escorting a flight of B-24 bombers in March 1944, Yeager was aided by members of the French Resistance, who helped him return to his base in England. Although Yeager could have gone home to the U.S., he put in a request to return to combat, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower ultimately granted his wish. Yeager returned to action in August 1944.
“The secret of my success,” he said, “is that I always managed to live to fly another day.”
In October 1944, he became an “ace in a day” when he shot down five German planes in a single mission. Among the casualties was a German Me 262 jet. “The first time I ever saw a jet,” he said, “I shot it down.”
When the war ended in 1945, Yeager became a test pilot, and his exploits were among those chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff, about the origins of U.S. space program. The book became a movie four years later. Without a college degree, Yeager not allowed to become an astronaut, but his contribution to the program is undeniable.
Yeager’s historic supersonic flight on October 14, 1947, took all of the bravery and skill that he could muster. For years, aviation experts believed that we weren’t meant to fly faster than the speed of sound—Mach 1—theorizing that transonic drag rise would tear apart any aircraft. But Bell Aircraft Company had other ideas, and it was ready to prove it with the X-1, a light, streamlined rocket plane that resembled a .50-caliber bullet.
It was up to Yeager to pull it off. Two days before the flight, however, he was nearly grounded by a horse.
According to chuckyeager.com, Yeager and his wife, Glennis, went horseback riding, and on their return home, they challenged each other to a race. When Yeager’s horse came to a fast stop as it neared a closed gate, Yeager was hurled head over heels to the ground. The following day, with Yeager in intense pain due to broken ribs, he went to see a veterinarian so that he could keep his injury hidden from the flight doctor. The vet taped Yeager up, then advised, “Don’t do nothin’ strenuous.” Sure thing, Yeager promised.
The next morning, he slipped into the cramped cockpit of the X-1, named Glamorous Glennis, and prepared to enter uncharted territory, which he jokingly referred to as the “ugh-known.” Flying over Rogers Dry Lake in Southern California, the X-1 was lifted to an altitude of 25,000 feet by a B-29 aircraft and then released through the bomb bay. Yeager, climbing to 40,000 feet, accelerated until he exceeded 662 miles per hour (the sound barrier at that altitude). The X-1 survived completely intact, and the sonic boom could be heard on the ground.
Yeager’s quote afterward doubles as an encouraging message about perseverance. “Just before you break through the sound barrier,” he said, “the cockpit shakes the most.”
Due to the secrecy of the project, the achievement wasn’t announced until June 1948. Yeager continued to serve as an Air Force test pilot, and in 1953 he flew 1650 miles per hour in an X-1A rocket plane.
Often called fearless by the media, Yeager said he was anything but. He just used fear to his advantage.
“I was always afraid of dying. Always,” he said. “It was my fear that made me learn everything I could about my airplane and my emergency equipment and kept me flying, respectful of my machine and always alert in the cockpit.”
Yeager retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1975 with the rank of brigadier general. He died on December 7, 2020, at age 97. Today, his orange X-1 rocket plane hangs in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington, a testament to breaking the sound barrier—and the rules.
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