While many know that in 1947, pilot Charles “Chuck” Yeager made history as the first pilot to fly faster than the speed of sound, this record-setting achievement is only one of Yeager’s many contributions to the field of aviation. Yeager’s flying career spans over six decades, during which he served in the U.S. Air Force and flew experimental aircraft as a daring test pilot.
Born in 1923 to a farming family, Yeager grew up working with mechanical devices and engines. He joined the U.S. Army Air Forces after high school with the intention of becoming a mechanic, not a pilot. After showing an interest in aviation, he earned his wings in 1943 and was stationed in the United Kingdom.
As an officer in the Air Force, he flew P-51 Mustangs in combat, and became the first pilot in his squadron to make “ace in a day,” which refers to taking down five enemy aircraft in a single mission. His skill as a pilot and mechanic qualified him to become a test pilot after the war.
In 1947, the USAAF selected Yeager to fly the rocket-powered Bell XS-1 to research high-speed flight and break the sound barrier. On October 14, 1947, Yeager flew the X-1 at Mach 1.07 at an altitude of 45,000 ft. over the Mojave Desert. Yeager continued to break other speed and altitude records.
Yeager returned to military combat in 1966 during the Vietnam War when he flew a total of 127 combat missions. He formally retired from the Air Force in 1975, after which he received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his first supersonic flight as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Aviation remains Yeager’s passion. He continued to fly well into the 1980s, and created the General Chuck Yeager Foundation to support aviation scholars.