In 1941, a young man from West Virginia enlisted in the Army Air Corps. To the outward gaze, he was nobody special, with average grades, but he had spent his teenage years working in his dad’s natural gas drilling business…as a mechanic.
In other words, just another small town boy joining the military in a time of war.
Except that this young man wasn’t ordinary at all. His name was Chuck Yeager.
Ace in a Day
Yeager didn’t join the Army Air Corps as a pilot. He joined as a mechanic, but his imagination was apparently caught. He signed up for flight school and in 1943 became a reserve flight officer; then a pilot assigned to fighter command in England.
Most of his compatriots didn’t even make it through training. Yeager soared.
On October 12, 1944, Yeager shot down five German planes in a single mission, entering the rarified strata of the “ace-in-a-day.” He repeated the feat on November 27.
This achievement came after what had to be the lowest moment in his war; the day in March 5, 1944, when he was shot down over occupied France. He was smuggled to Gibraltar by the resistance (where’s the movie? There needs to be a movie).
After the war, Yeager could have left the military. He didn’t. There was no way he was giving up not just flying, but flying the fast planes that they had. He volunteered as a test pilot, a job in which his nerves of steel were a massive advantage.
Yeager was chosen to fly the X-1, a rocket powered plane that was launched out of a B-29 bomb bay.
This was a highly innovative time in aviation, and the X-1 was the first X plane, designed entirely to test this new technology. Rocket-powered supersonic planes turned out not to be a feasible design, but…
On October 12, 1947, two days before he was scheduled to fly, Yeager broke two ribs in a horseback riding accident…an accident he hid from the flight surgeon to avoid being grounded.
On October 14 he became the first man to travel faster than sound. With two broken ribs. (As a note, he could have been killed, but that’s test pilots for you, they’re even less willing to show anything resembling fear than racecar drivers).
Yeager’s place in history was assured, but of course he didn’t stop there.
Over the next few years he broke more records and took command positions. But this built up to the next part of his life.
Yeager Handing Out the Right Stuff
In 1962, Yeager was named Commandant of the Aerospace Research Pilot School.
Which was a brand new institution, and there’s a key word in there. “Aerospace.”
Yeager did not qualify to be an astronaut because of his lack of a college education, something he apparently felt keenly.
Yet it did not stop him from presiding over America’s first class of astronauts. He taught others to do what he could not (unfairly, in my opinion) do himself, and what had never been done before.
He didn’t just have “The Right Stuff,” but knew how to encourage it in others.
He retired from the Air Force in 1975, at the rank of Brigadier (not bad for somebody who started out as an Army Air Corp private). He spent his retirement working as an advisor and a consultant.
Chuck Yeager died this morning, December 8, 2020, at the age of 97 from complications of a fall. There’s a man missing from our formation and he will be mourned.
In his long life he made history, but perhaps his largest contribution was his work designing the original astronaut program, from which our current training programs descend.
He wasn’t just a great pilot, he was a great educator. It‘s for breaking the sound barrier that he’s famous. But in the grand scheme of history, his role helping humanity go to space will be what really matters.