Chuck Yeager was born on February 13, 1923, in Myra, West Virginia. A fighter pilot ace during World War II, he became the first person to break the sound barrier, when he flew the Bell X-1 rocket 700 mph in level flight in October 1947. Yeager later trained military pilots to become astronauts, and served in various command posts until his retirement from the Air Force in 1975. His profile boosted by his portrayal in the 1979 book The Right Stuff and its 1983 film adaptation, Yeager became a well-known celebrity endorser, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985.
Early Years and War Hero
Charles Elwood Yeager was born on February 13, 1923, in Myra, West Virginia, and primarily grew up in the town of Hamlin. In September 1941, shortly after graduating from high school, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps.
Proving a superb pilot in training, Yeager was assigned to the Eighth Air Force for combat operations in World War II. In March 1944, his P-51 Mustang was shot down over France, but Yeager evaded capture and escaped to Spain. He could have gone home, but he put in a request to return to combat, a request that went all the way up to General Dwight D. Eisenhower. The request granted, Yeager returned to action in August 1944. Later, he was credited with downing five German planes in a single day.
Yeager returned stateside with the rank of captain in early 1945, having completed more than 60 aerial missions during the war.
Breaking the Sound Barrier
After attending the Flight Performance School, Chuck Yeager was chosen to test pilot the Bell X-1 rocket in 1947. Naming the jet “Glamorous Glennis” after his wife, Yeager on October 14 reached a top speed of 700 mph at 43,000 feet, becoming the first person to break the sound barrier (Mach 1).
Despite its historic nature, information about this flight was deemed classified and as such was not released to the general public until June 1948. Afterward, Yeager was honored for his aviation trailblazing with the Mackay Trophy and the Collier Trophy, the latter presented by President Harry S. Truman at the White House.
One of the military's premier pilots, Yeager in 1953 was tapped to fly a Russian MiG that had fallen into U.S. hands via a North Korean defector, making him the first American to do so. That December, he set a new speed record in the air, pushing past Mach 2 in a Bell X-1A to reach a speed of 1,650 miles per hour. For his efforts he was once again called to the White House, this time by President Eisenhower, who presented him with the Harmon International Trophy.
Chuck Yeager was dispatched to Europe in 1954 to serve as commander of the 417th Fighter Bomber Squadron, before he returned to the U.S. to oversee the 1st Fighter Day Squadron at George Air Force Base. In 1962, he was chosen to head up the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School to train astronauts.
Yeager returned to combat operations in 1966 as commander of the 405th Fighter Wing based in the Philippines. After earning a promotion to brigadier general, he became vice commander of the 17th Air Force in Germany in 1969. Yeager then was named U.S. defense representative to Pakistan in 1971, and in 1973, the same year he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, he took on the role of director of aerospace safety at Norton Air Force Base in California. In February 1975, shortly after completing his final active duty flight, he retired from the Air Force.
Chuck Yeager was prominently featured in Tom Wolfe's 1979 book The Right Stuff, which examined the development of the U.S. space program, and he appeared in the 1983 film adaptation. A well-known celebrity endorser, he released two autobiographies that decade. In 1985, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
On October 14, 1997, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his breaking the sound barrier, Yeager took to the skies to push past Mach 1 once again. Amazingly, he replicated that feat in 2012, at age 89, to mark the 65th anniversary of that historic date.
The legendary pilot lives in Penn Valley, California, with his second wife, Victoria.
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