1923-2020'I was just a lucky kid who caught the right ride'

Flying legend Chuck Yeager, first to break sound barrier, dies at 97

Pilot immortalized in ‘The Right Stuff’ hit Mach 1 in experimental Bell X-1 research aircraft in 1947, helping to pave the way for the US space program

In this image provided by the US Air Force, Colonel Charles Yeager holds an X-1 in which he was the first man to break the sound barrier in 1947, shown Oct. 12, 1962. (AP Photo/US Air Force)
In this image provided by the US Air Force, Colonel Charles Yeager holds an X-1 in which he was the first man to break the sound barrier in 1947, shown Oct. 12, 1962. (AP Photo/US Air Force)

Chuck Yeager, a World War II fighter ace who was the first man to travel faster than sound and whose gutsy test pilot exploits were immortalized in the Hollywood blockbuster “The Right Stuff,” died Monday, his wife said. He was 97.

“It is w/ profound sorrow, I must tell you that my life love General Chuck Yeager passed just before 9pm ET,” Victoria Yeager tweeted on her husband’s account.

“An incredible life well lived, America’s greatest Pilot, & a legacy of strength, adventure, & patriotism will be remembered forever.”

She did not specify the cause of her husband’s death.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement that Yeager’s death was “a tremendous loss to our nation.”

“Gen. Yeager’s pioneering and innovative spirit advanced America’s abilities in the sky and set our nation’s dreams soaring into the jet age and the space age. He said, ‘You don’t concentrate on risks. You concentrate on results. No risk is too great to prevent the necessary job from getting done,’” Bridenstine said in his statement.

“In an age of media-made heroes, he is the real deal,” Edwards Air Force Base historian Jim Young said in August 2006 at the unveiling of a bronze statue of Yeager.

He was “the most righteous of all those with the right stuff,” said Maj. Gen. Curtis Bedke, commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards.

Maj. Chuck Yeager of the US is seen at Frankfurt Rhine Main Air Base in Germany, Feb. 5, 1955. (AP Photo/Albert Riethausen)

Yeager rocketed into history by breaking the sound barrier in the experimental Bell X-1 research aircraft in 1947, helping to pave the way for the US space program.

“Sure, I was apprehensive,” he said in 1968. “When you’re fooling around with something you don’t know much about, there has to be apprehension. But you don’t let that affect your job.”

The modest Yeager said in 1947 he could have gone even faster had the plane carried more fuel. He said the ride “was nice, just like riding fast in a car.”

In 2007 he said: “It opened up space, Star Wars, satellites.”

Charles Elwood Yeager was born on February 13, 1923 in the tiny town of Myra, West Virginia, and grew up fixing pickup trucks alongside his father.

“What really strikes me looking over all those years is how lucky I was, how lucky, for example, to have been born in 1923 and not 1963 so that I came of age just as aviation itself was entering the modern era,” Yeager said in a December 1985 speech at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

“I was just a lucky kid who caught the right ride,” he said.

Yeager joined the Army Air Corps in September 1941, three months before the United States entered World War II, and started out as an aircraft mechanic before undergoing flight training.

Based in England, Yeager began flying combat missions in a P-51 Mustang in February 1944 and downed a German Me 109.

Yeager was shot down behind enemy lines in March 1944 but was able to rejoin his unit in England with the help of the French resistance after a harrowing trek over the Pyrenees.

Capt. Chuck Yeager is seen, 1947. (AP Photo)

He resumed combat and was credited with 12.5 aerial victories by the war’s end, including downing five German Me 109s on a single day and four FW 190s on another.

Yeager booked his place in history as a test pilot when he broke the sound barrier in the rocket-powered Bell X-1 on October 14, 1947, earning him the title of “The Fastest Man Alive.”

After the X-1 was dropped from the belly of a B-29 bomber at 45,000 feet (13,700 meters), Yeager flew at supersonic Mach 1.06 (700 miles/1,130 kilometers per hour).

Yeager’s colleague Chalmers “Slick” Goodlin, another test pilot for Bell Laboratories, once famously described the X-1 as a “bullet with wings.”

It was, in fact, modeled after a .50-caliber bullet, with short wings and a pointed tip, allowing it to pierce the air more efficiently.

The aircraft, nicknamed “Glamorous Glennis” in honor of Yeager’s first wife, now hangs in the National Air and Space Museum in the nation’s capital.

General Chuck Yeager poses next to a model of the Bell X-1 plane that he used to break the sound barrier for the first time in 1947, at the 20th anniversary of the film ‘The Right Stuff’ at the Egyptian Theater in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles, June 9, 2003 (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Multiple records

Before his historic flight, Yeager said he received advice from Colonel Albert Boyd, who headed the Air Force’s supersonic flight program.

“Get above Mach 1 as soon as you can, don’t bust your butt, and don’t embarrass the Air Force,” Yeager said Boyd told him.

“I had done what the old man had sent us out to do,” the matter-of-fact Yeager said.

Yeager’s accomplishment was depicted in the iconic 1983 film “The Right Stuff” based on the book by Tom Wolfe.

Sam Shepard received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for his portrayal of Yeager in the movie about the Mercury program astronauts.

But when National Geographic and Disney+ adapted the same material for the small screen in 2020, Yeager was left out of the series.

Yeager would go on to set numerous other flight records, but most of his career was spent as a military commander directing US fighter squadrons throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

He retired from the US Air Force in 1975 as a brigadier general.

“I’ve flown 341 types of military planes in every country in the world and logged about 18,000 hours,” he said in an interview in the January 2009 issue of Men’s Journal. “It might sound funny, but I’ve never owned an airplane in my life. If you’re willing to bleed, Uncle Sam will give you all the planes you want.”

Yeager never forgot his roots and West Virginia named bridges, schools and Charleston’s airport after him.

“My beginnings back in West Virginia tell who I am to this day,” Yeager wrote. “My accomplishments as a test pilot tell more about luck, happenstance and a person’s destiny. But the guy who broke the sound barrier was the kid who swam the Mud River with a swiped watermelon or shot the head off a squirrel before going to school.”

Yeager was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star, the Air Medal and the Purple Heart. President Harry S. Truman awarded him the Collier air trophy in December 1948 for his breaking the sound barrier. He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985.

Capt. David Vincent, left, congratulates retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Charles Yeager following their F-15D re-enactment flight commemorating Yeager’s breaking of the sound barrier 65 years earlier on Oct. 14, 2012, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

Yeager retired from the Air Force in 1975 and moved to a ranch in Cedar Ridge in Northern California where he continued working as a consultant to the Air Force and Northrop Corp. and became well known to younger generations as a television pitchman for automotive parts and heat pumps.

He married Glennis Dickhouse of Oroville, California, on Feb. 26, 1945. She died of ovarian cancer in December 1990. They had four children: Donald, Michael, Sharon and Susan.

Yeager married 45-year-old Victoria Scott D’Angelo in 2003.

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