The Mountain State lost a true West Virginia legend Monday night with the death of Chuck Yeager.
Most famous for being the first human being to break the sound barrier, Yeager was first a decorated World War II hero.
Yeager enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces in September 1941, beginning his career as an aircraft mechanic as he was ineligible for flight school due to his age and educational background.
It wasn’t until the United States entered into World War II, leading to the USAAF changing their pilot requirements, that Yeager would have his opportunity to move into the cockpit.
“I’d never been in an airplane, and they didn’t mean anything to me.” Yeager told WV Metro News’ Chris Lawrence in an interview that took place around 2004, “I applied for pilot training because I noticed pilots made more money than I did, and thought it might be fun.”
On his eighth combat mission, in March 1944, Yeager was shot down over France. He managed to escape to Spain with the help of the French Resistance, whom he helped with non-combat tasks such as making bombs — a skill he learned from his father back home in Lincoln County.
Yeager returned to his home base of RAF Leiston in England on May 15, 1944, and less than a month later returned to the skies for another combat mission despite a regulation that prohibited escaped pilots from flying over enemy territory again.
“I raised so much hell that General Eisenhower finally let me go back to my squadron,” Yeager said.
In October of the same year, Yeager would officially become an ace fighter pilot by downing five enemies in a single mission.
In all, Yeager flew 64 combat missions.
After the war, Yeager remained in the Air Force and became a test pilot at what is now Edwards Air Force Base in California. It’s there that Yeager would earn his notoriety.
The Air Force selected Yeager to pilot the Bell XS-1 when they passed on their first pick, Chalmers Goodlin, after he demanded $150,000 for taking the flight.
On October 14, 1947, Yeager made history in the middle of the Mojave Desert, flying the X-1 Glamorous Glennis at Mach 1.05 at an altitude of 45,000 feet, breaking the sound barrier.
What the Air Force didn’t know at the time was that Yeager took the flight with two broken ribs, which he’d suffered two nights before the flight when he fell off a horse. Yeager visited a civilian doctor in order to keep the injury a secret, fearing his flight would be canceled.
On the day of the flight, Yeager was in such excruciating pain that he couldn’t close the X-1’s hatch without the assistance of a broom handle that was rigged up to act as a lever to take some of the strain off of his body.
Yeager’s local legend grew again a year after breaking the sound barrier.
On the way back to Edwards AFB from a spur of the moment flight home to see his parents in Hamlin, which he later said the Air Force likely had no idea he had even taken, Yeager decided to make one last loop around Charleston.
Yeager looped around the West Virginia Capitol Building and found himself flying along the Kanawha River, heading west, when he looked up to see the South Side Bridge. Realizing he had about 11-feet of clearance and flying around 450 MPH, Yeager made the only choice a pilot of his caliber could make — he flew under it.
“I looked up and saw the bridge and within a second I knew I had clearance. I pulled up and then when I saw the guys getting off their boats, I got the hell out of there.”
Stories of Yeager’s flight that Sunday grew more and more exaggerated as the years went on, until he set the record straight in an interview with The Charleston Gazette in 2010.
“As time goes on, hell, people just let their imaginations run away with them.”
Despite being a legitimate World War II hero and earning his accolades with his history-making flight in October 1947, Yeager wasn’t free from controversy.
In the early 1960s, with the growing Civil Rights Movement, the White House and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration wanted their astronauts — who were looked upon as national heroes — to represent the diversity of the country. After directing the Navy and Air Force to look through their ranks for any black candidates to enter into the NASA astronaut selection process, the Air Force returned to the White House with one name — Ed Dwight, a young, charismatic test pilot at Edwards AFB with the required flight time and performance ratings.
Dwight trained in the Aerospace Research Pilot School, under the command of Yeager, and was immediately met with prejudice, as recounted in his autobiography.
Yeager maintained that Dwight was only admitted due to preferential treatment and that he only passed the first portion of the course—in the first year of the school’s existence—with special assistance from instructors.
“From the moment we picked our first class, I was caught in a buzz saw of controversy involving a black student. The White House, Congress, and civil rights groups came at me with meat cleavers, and the only way I could save my head was to prove I wasn’t a damned bigot.”
According to Dwight and a later investigation by the White House, Yeager was said to have pulled all the instructors into a room and ordered them not to speak to Dwight, interact or provide advice to him, and not to socialize with him outside of the base. Yeager’s reason was allegedly that he didn’t want “a colored guy” to be an astronaut.
Yeager, of course, denied the accusations.
Dwight would ultimately get passed over by NASA, and was reassigned from Edwards AFB following President John F. Kennedy’s assisnation before resigning from the Air Force in 1966.
Yeager retired from the United States Air Force in 1975, after serving nearly 34 years in active duty, but still maintained a busy life into his later years. He continued occasional flights as a test pilot at Edwards, and set several general performance records for speed, range and endurance in the 1980s. He appeared in 1983’s The Right Stuff, a movie about Project Mercury and the Aerospace Research Pilot School. He had his name attached to three flight simulator video games made by Electronic Arts.
In 2012, at the age of 89, Yeager climbed into the co-pilot seat of an F-15 Eagle and broke the sound barrier one last time on the 65th anniversary of his famous flight.
Chuck Yeager was the embodiment of the Overly Manly Man meme. A legitimate bad ass that was tough as nails.
West Virginia has lost a trio of legends this year, with Yeager joined by Katherine Johnson and Bill Withers. Their names will live on throughout the state — on buildings, airports, libraries, bridges and roads — and their stories will not be forgotten, but the Mountain State is now on short supply of legitimate icons.
Rest easy, General.
“If you want to grow old as a pilot, you’ve got to know when to push it, and when to back off.” - Chuck Yeager