Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Chuck Yeager

Happy Birthday to one of my heroes, Chuck Yeager.
Charles Elwood "Chuck" Yeager (born February 13, 1923) is a retired Brigadier General in the United States Air Force and a noted test pilot. In 1947, he became the first pilot (at age 24) to travel faster than sound in level flight and ascent.

His career began in World War II as a private in the U.S. Army Air Force. After serving as an aircraft mechanic, in September, 1942 he entered enlisted pilot training and upon graduation was promoted to the rank of Flight Officer (WW 2 U.S. Army Air Force rank equivalent to Warrant Officer) and became a P-51 fighter pilot. After the war he became a test pilot of many kinds of aircraft and rocket planes. Although Scott Crossfield was the first man to fly faster than Mach 2 in 1953, Yeager shortly thereafter exceeded Mach 2.4.He later commanded fighter squadrons and wings in Germany and in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, and in recognition of the outstanding performance ratings of those units he then was promoted to Brigadier General. Yeager's flying career spans more than sixty years and has taken him to every corner of the globe, even into the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War.

Yeager was born to farming-parents Susie Mae and Albert Hal Yeager in Myra, West Virginia and graduated from high school in Hamlin, West Virginia. Yeager had two brothers, Roy and Hal, Jr., and two sisters, Doris Ann (accidentally killed by Roy with a shotgun while still an infant) and Pansy Lee. His first association with the military was as a participant in the Citizens Military Training Camp at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indianapolis, Indiana, during both the summers of 1939 and 1940. On February 26, 1945, Yeager married Glennis Dickhouse, and the couple had four children. Glennis Yeager died in 1990.

Chuck Yeager is not related to Jeana Yeager, one of the two pilots of the Rutan Voyager aircraft, which circled the world without landing or refueling. The name "Yeager" is an Anglicized form of the German and Dutch name, J├Ąger (German: "hunter") , and so is common among immigrants of those communities.
Yeager enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) on September 12, 1941, and became an aircraft mechanic at George Air Force Base, Victorville, California. He displayed natural talent as a pilot, receiving his wings and a promotion to Flight Officer at Luke Field, Arizona, on March 10, 1943. Assigned to the 357th Fighter Group at Tonopah, Nevada, he initially trained as a fighter pilot flying P-39 Airacobras and went overseas with the group on November 23, 1943.

Stationed in the United Kingdom at RAF Leiston, Yeager flew P-51 Mustangs in combat (he named his aircraft Glamorous Glen[1] after his girlfriend, Glennis Faye Dickhouse, who became his wife in February 1945) with the 363rd Fighter Squadron. He had gained one victory before he was shot down over France on his eighth mission, on March 5, 1944. He escaped to Spain on March 30 with the help of the Maquis (French Resistance) and returned to England on May 15, 1944. During his stay with the Maquis, Yeager assisted the guerrillas in duties that did not involve direct combat, though he did help to construct bombs for the group, a skill that he had learned from his father. He was awarded the Bronze Star for helping another airman, who lost part of his leg during the escape attempt, to cross the Pyrenees.

Despite a regulation that "evaders" (escaped pilots) could not fly over enemy territory again to avoid compromising Resistance allies, Yeager was reinstated to flying combat. Yeager had joined a bomber pilot evader, Capt. Fred Glover, in speaking directly to the Allied Supreme Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, on June 12, 1944. With Glover pleading their case, arguing that because the Allies had invaded France, the Maquis resistance movement was by then openly fighting the Nazis alongside, so there was little or nothing they could reveal if shot down again to expose those who had helped them evade capture. Eisenhower, after gaining permission from the War Department to decide the requests, concurred with Yeager and Glover. Yeager later credited his postwar success in the Air Force to this decision, saying that his test pilot career followed naturally from being a decorated combat ace with a good kill record, along with being an airplane maintenance man prior to attending pilot school. In part because of his maintenance background, Yeager frequently served in his flying units as a "maintenance officer," the liaison between pilots and mechanics.

Yeager possessed outstanding eyesight (rated as 20/10, once enabling him to shoot a deer at 600 yards), flying skills, and combat leadership; he distinguished himself by becoming the first pilot in his group to make "ace in a day": he shot down five enemy aircraft in one mission, finishing the war with 11.5 official victories, including one of the first air-to-air victories over a jet fighter (a German Me-262). Two of his "ace in a day" kills were scored without firing a single shot; he flew into firing position against an Me-109 and the pilot of the aircraft panicked, breaking to starboard and colliding with his wingman; Yeager later reported both pilots bailed out. An additional victory that was not officially counted for him came during the period before his combat status was reinstated: during a training flight in his P-51 over the North Sea, he happened on a German Ju-88 attacking a downed B-17 Flying Fortress crew. Yeager's quick thinking and reflexes saved the B-17 crew, but because he was not yet cleared for flying combat again, his gun camera film and credit for the kill were given to his wingman, Eddie Simpson. (Yeager later mistakenly recalled that the credit had given Simpson his fifth kill).

Yeager, after being turned down three times by a promotion board because of a court-martial on his enlisted record, was commissioned a second lieutenant while at Leiston and was promoted to captain before the end of his tour. He flew his sixty-first and final mission on January 15, 1945, and returned to the United States in early February. As an evader, he received his choice of assignments and because his new wife was pregnant, chose Wright Field to be near his home in West Virginia. His high flight hours and maintenance experience qualified him to become a functional test pilot of repaired aircraft, which brought him under the command of Colonel Albert Boyd, head of the Aeronautical Systems Flight Test Division.

Yeager remained in the Air Force after the war, becoming a test pilot at Muroc Army Air Field (now Edwards Air Force Base) and eventually being selected to fly the rocket-powered Bell X-1 in a NACA program to research high-speed flight, after Bell Aircraft test pilot "Slick" Goodlin demanded $150,000 to break the sound "barrier." Such was the difficulty in this task that the answer to many of the inherent challenges were along the lines of "Yeager better have paid-up insurance." Yeager broke the sound barrier on October 14, 1947, flying the experimental X-1 at Mach 1 at an altitude of 45,000 feet (13,700 m). Two nights before the scheduled date for the flight, he broke two ribs while riding a horse. He was so afraid of being removed from the mission that he went to a veterinarian in a nearby town for treatment and told only his wife, as well as friend and fellow project pilot Jack Ridley about it.

On the day of the flight, Yeager was in such pain that he could not seal the airplane's hatch by himself. Ridley rigged up a device (really just the end of a broom handle, used as an extra lever) to allow Yeager to seal the hatch of the airplane. Yeager's flight recorded Mach 1.07. However, Yeager was always quick to point out that the public paid attention to whole numbers and that the next milestone would be exceeding Mach 2. Yeager's X-1 is on display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. Yeager was awarded the MacKay and Collier Trophies in 1948 for his mach-transcending flight, and the Harmon International Trophy in 1954.

Some aviation historians contend that American pilot George Welch broke the sound barrier before Yeager, once while diving an XP-86 Sabre on October 14, 1947, and again just 30 minutes before Yeager's X-1 flight. There was also a disputed claim by German pilot Hans Guido Mutke that he was the first person to break the sound barrier, on April 9, 1945, in a Messerschmitt Me.262. Postwar testing, however, determined that the Me-262 would go out of control and break apart well short of Mach 1.

Yeager went on to break many other speed and altitude records. He also was one of the first American pilots to fly a MiG-15 'Fagot' after its pilot defected to South Korea with it. During the latter half of 1953, Yeager was involved with the USAF team that was working on the X-1A, an aircraft designed to surpass Mach 2 in level flight. That year, he flew a chase plane for the female civilian pilot Jackie Cochran, a close friend, as she became the first woman to fly faster than sound. However, on November 20, 1953, the NACA's D-558-II Skyrocket and its pilot, Scott Crossfield, became the first team to reach twice the speed of sound. After they were bested, Ridley and Yeager decided to beat rival Crossfield's speed record in a flight series that they dubbed "Operation NACA Weep." Not only did they beat Crossfield, but they did it in time to spoil a celebration planned for the 50th anniversary of flight in which Crossfield was to be called "the fastest man alive." The Ridley/Yeager USAF team achieved Mach 2.44 on December 12, 1953. Shortly after reaching Mach 2.44, due to a loss of aerodynamic control at approximately 80,000 ft., Yeager lost control of the X-1A. With the aircraft out of control, simultaneously rolling, pitching and yawing out of the sky Yeager dropped 51,000 feet in 51 seconds until regaining control of the aircraft at approximately 29,000 feet. He was able to land the aircraft without further incident.

Command pilot
Air Force Distinguished Service Medal
Bronze Oak Leaf
Silver Star, for shooting down five Me-109s in one day,[16] with one oak leaf cluster
Bronze Oak Leaf
Legion of Merit with one oak leaf cluster
Bronze Oak Leaf
Bronze Oak Leaf
Distinguished Flying Cross, for an Me-262 kill,[17] with two oak leaf clusters, including first to break the sound barrier
Valor device
Bronze Star Medal, for helping rescue a fellow airman from Occupied France,[4] with “V” device
Purple Heart
Silver Oak Leaf
Silver Oak Leaf
Air Medal with 10 oak leaf clusters
Bronze Oak Leaf
Distinguished Unit Citation Emblem with oak leaf cluster
Air Force Outstanding Unit Award
Air Force Commendation Medal
American Defense Service Medal
American Campaign Medal
Silver Award Star
Bronze Service Star
Bronze Service Star
Bronze Service Star
European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal (8 battle stars)
World War II Victory Medal
Presidential Medal of Freedom
* Congressional Silver Medal (1976), for breaking the sound barrier for the first time.

* Collier Trophy and Mackay Trophy, for breaking the sound barrier for the first time.
Chuck Yeager and his story feature prominently in Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff. He also features in the movie of the same name and makes a cameo appearance in that film.

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