The Modest Space Trail-blazer

Graeme Kennedy

The Auckland Star, March 29, 1983


At 24, Chuck Yeager flew the Bell X-1 beyond Mach-1, the first man through the sound barrier. Now this veteran of 11,000 flying hours talks to Graeme Kennedy.


Chuck Yeager's business card says a lot about the man. Like him, it’s modest, plain-spoken and recognizes 40 years of support from his wife Glennis. The card is simple black and white, while it could have passed, without embarrassment, with the Stars and Stripes, a screaming jet fighter or a sonic shock wave rippling across its face. It identifies him merely as president of a company called Yeager Inc and his wife as “sec treas”.

He could, though, have had printed: Chuck Yeager, Space Trail-blazer. Or Fighter Pilot, World War II Ace, Astronaut Tutor, US Air Force Consultant or Experimental Test Pilot. Even, First Man to Fly Faster Than Sound.

Yeager streaked into aviation history and millions of teenagers’ scrapbooks 36 years ago, 25,000ft above California’s Mojave Desert, when he pushed his Bell X-1 rocket ship past Mach-1 to create the world’s first sonic boom. That feat made him a national hero – an airman American novelist Tom Wolfe has described as “the quintessence of ‘the right stuff’, the secret code of the very best and bravest pilots”.


But, typically, the 60-year-old shrugs off such accolades. “I don’t pay a hell of a lot of attention to that,” he grinned over coffee during a brief visit to Auckland last weekend.


“Any air force pilot could have done what I did with the X-1. I was in the right place at the right time – that’s all. The opportunity was there.”


Yeager was just 24-years-old when, as the youngest pilot ever accepted by the test pilot school at Muroc on the Rogers Dry Lake in the Mojave, he was chosen for the Bell X-1.


Bell Aircraft was developing the rocket plane with a civilian test pilot under a Government contract.


It was handed to the air force when the Bell pilots demanded bonuses of up to $150,000 to face the unknown perils of the so-called sound barrier.


So Yeager took the job - for his basic $283-a-month captain’s pay.


“The X-1 was a pure research airplane and no air force pilot had flown it until it came to Edwards (formerly Muroc),” he explained.


“It was different from anything I’d ever seen – it was simply a clean rocket – consequently I and my back-up pilot Bob Hoover made a point to learn everything there was to know about it.


“It was a wonderful airplane to fly – quiet, well-co-ordinated, smooth – but it had poor visibility from the cockpit and was tricky to land.”


But landing was made easier by the dry lake – probably the world’s biggest operational airfield, now regularly used by the US Space Shuttle.


“I’ve landed there two or three thousand times now,” Yeager said. “In the X-1 days it was eight miles long and five wide. When they moved a railway track running across it, runway length became 13 miles.


“That lake-bed saved millions of dollars worth or airplanes. I’ve seen big bombers land there with an undercarriage problem that would have sent them crashing off the side of a normal runway.


“At the lake, they just ran off in a huge circle.


“I once landed an F-100 (Super Sabre) without hydraulics, so no brakes. I just coasted for 11 or 12 miles until we stopped.”


Yeager took the X-1 on 11 flights before the October, 1947, mission which boomed him into history.


“The idea was to take the airplane up and each time increase speed by 1/200th
of a Mach – that’s about 15mph – and with increase note how the airplane behaved.


“At Mach .94 the X-1 lost elevator control so we went back, checked the systems and found we could control it with a flying tail.”


(Like all jetliners today, it was modified so the entire tail, rather than only the elevators, could move up or down.)


“That was one big thing that came out of the X-1 programme. The F-86 Sabre was on the drawing boards at the time so they fitted that with a flying tail, too.


“That’s why the F-86 beat the Mig-15 in Korea.


“I made a dozen flights in the Mig after the war and it was a pretty good airplane but with no flying tail it was unstable at altitude.”


Yeager, through successive flights, had been nudging the X-1 closer to the “barrier”, coping with the severe buffeting as he approached Mach 1.


On the morning of the epic flight, he was launched at 25,000ft from beneath a B29 bomber, opened the throttle and felt the familiar buffeting as the X-1 streaked faster than ever before.


“I had been to Mach .955 – and we were going faster than we actually thought. The sonic pressure wave on the nose was retarding the Machmeter.


“On October 14, I pushed the X-1 to Mach .96 – and suddenly the buffeting smoothed out and the Machmeter went off the scale.


“I’d made the world’s first sonic boom, but I didn’t give the significance of it a thought – I was busy flying the airplane and watching the pressures.


“There was a feeling of relief – at least the plane didn’t fly apart.


“No one really knew what would happen when the airplane exceeded Mach 1. There was a doubt but in research flying there’s always a risk – you’ve got to put that at the back of your mind.”


Yeager landed back on the dry lake but there were no television cameras or cheering pressmen to applaud his feat because the X-1 programme was classified.


The world’s fastest man didn’t miss the applause. He and his fellow pilots spend the evening celebrating at Pancho’s, the little desert bar which became the centre of their social life.


“I remember that night going down there, getting drunk and raising hell.”


Yeager later pushed the X-1 past Mach-1 a dozen times and flew even more sophisticated rocketry with fellow pilots Scott Crossfield, Joe Walker, Iven Kincheloe, Kit Murray and his original back-up, Hoover.


Crossfield ser a new record of Mach-2 and only weeks later Yeager took the X-1A to Mach-2.4


“They were good years, Yeager smiled. “I did the development flying of the F-100 and the F-104 Starfighter and tested the P-84 Thunderjet, the P-86 Sabre and the XF-92 – the world’s first delta wing.


“And there were many, many more. I’ve flown 11,000 hours in 380 different models of 179 different types.


“They were all good and they were all fast. There aren’t any fighters flying today that don’t do Mach-2 and the ultimate flying is combat.


“That’s the reason you’re on earth. That’s why you’re trained. You’re doing the job fighter pilots are made for – to fight.”


Sentiments the young Yeager would never have dreamed of as he grew up in the tiny (pop: 600) West Virginia town of Hamlin with his gas-driller father and elder brother.


“I didn’t see an airplane until I was 16,” he says. “Some guy lost his engine and landed in a cornfield. We rode our bikes up to look at it.


“I couldn’t have cared less about them.”


Nevertheless, Yeager and four friends joined the US Army Air Force – “perhaps because they had the best recruiting sergeant” – with no intention of flying.


He worked on old T-6 Harvards as a maintenance mechanic until, a week before Pearl Harbor, a notice inviting applicants to pilot training appeared on the board.


“I figured it would be better flying airplanes than fixing them,” he says.


“I’d never been in an airplane until January 1942 (only five years before he took the X-1 through the speed of sound).


“I was taken up in an AT-11 Twin Beach and got sicker than hell. It was pretty bad.


“I went up a month later and still got sick. Then, in July 1942, I started pilot training and it all changed.


“The first time I was allowed to fly the airplane it didn’t feel too bad at all – it seemed like a hell of a lot of fun.”


Yeager was posted to Europe and in 1944 was given his first P-51 Mustang.


“I called her Glamorous Glen 1 after my wife,” he says, “and got eight German planes before a FW-190 shot me down.”


Yeager bailed out, was picked up by resistance forces and smuggled through Spain back to the UK, where he was entrusted with another Mustang, Glamorous Glen II.


“Then I got a P-51D, Glamorous Glen III, and that lasted me until the end of the war.”


Yeager went home with 13 and a half  “kills” to his credit and the shot at the X-1.


“I could have called in Glamorous Glen IV, but decided to use my wife’s full name – Glennis,” he explains.


Yeager insists he has had a lot of luck along the way and points out that between 75% and 80% of his fellow pilots were killed while testing at Edwards between 1946 and 1954.


“They’ve all had streets named after them at Edwards,” he mused, “and that’s something I never wanted – to have my name on a street or an air force base.”


He’s come close many times, perhaps the nearest being the time his rocket-assisted NF-104 Starfighter went into a flat spin well above 100,000ft.


Yeager was training prospective astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, in the “boom and zoom” technique, designed to take pilots to the fringes of space.


Yeager had blasted himself beyond 100,000ft when he went into a spin.


“ I’d ridden it down to 6000ft and then punched out,” he recalls. “I was shot out of my seat and coming down under the parachute when suddenly the seat hit me in the face – right where the ejection rocket was still burning.

“I got sprayed with burning propellant which melted my visor. Inside the pressure suit was pure oxygen – so a fire flared up – INSIDE.


“One eye filled with blood but the heat seared it and saved it. The propellant was burning the parachute shrouds, my face was burning and I couldn’t get the helmet off.”


Yeager hit the desert floor and ripped the helmet from his burned, blackened and bloodied head. His gloves were melted to his hands and the tip of one finger burned off.


“A kid driving along a nearby road saw what happened and raced over to me. I looked like hell – he just got a little sick.”


Yeager survived and left Edwards in 1954 to command an F-100 Super Sabre squadron through Japan and Europe before returning to the lake as commander of the Aerospace Research Pilot School.


In 1966 he commanded the 405th Fighter Wing at Clarke AFB in the Philippines and in 1969 became vice-commander of the 17th Air Force in Germany.


He retired as a USAF Brigadier-General in 1975 to his home in Cedar Ridge, northern California with his wife Glennis.


Neither of his two sons fly, although one is an avionics technician with the Air Force, and his two daughters have their own careers. He has one grandchild.


Yeager hunts and fishes when he can, but the sky and supersonic aviation still take much of his time.


He is consultant test pilot to the USAF and to the Northrop Corporation – which allows him to check out in its new F-20 Tigershark.


He converted on to the super-hot, Northrop-bred, McDonnell Douglas-developed F-18 Hornet and was part of the briefing team which sold 75 of the aircraft to the RAAF recently.

He does not have an aircraft of his own, he says, because “I’m not in a hurry to get anywhere.”


What was that again, Chuck?