Breaking Barriers

On February 13, 1923, a baby boy was born to Susie Mae and Albert Hal Yeager.  The arrival of this infant in Myrna, West Virginia caused no stir in the world, nor did his humble upbringing in nearby Hamlin, West Virginia.  However,  Charles Elwood Yeager’s accomplishments in life soared to heights and speeds unimaginable at the time of his birth.


Immediately after graduating from high school, Chuck, as he was called by family and friends, enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps to serve in World War II.  In 1943, Yeager was flying for the United States in World War II when he made his first kill.  One day later, he was shot down over enemy territory.  With the aid of the French residence, he was able to make his way over the Pyrenees Mountains into neutral territory in Spain.  According to army policy, Yeager was prohibited from returning to combat flight.  A determined Yeager appealed directly to General Dwight D. Eisenhower and was granted permission to return to flying combat missions.  And fly he did!  The West Virginian flew a total of 64 combat missions.  He performed incredibly, even shot down a German jet from a prop plane.  On another occasion, in a single day, he shot down five enemy aircrafts.  By the end of the war, he had 13 downed enemy aircrafts to his credit.


On February 26, 1945, Yeager married Glennis Dickhouse.  The couple became the parents to four children:  Donald, Michael, Sharon, and Susan.


When the war was over, Yeager continued his service to the United States through the military.  He became a part of the newly constituted United States Air Force where he served as a flight instructor and a test pilot.  In 1947, Yeager accepted the assignment to test the rocket-powered X-1 fighter plane.  This was no small assignment.  Science could not tell at the time if a fixed-wing aircraft could fly faster than sound much less if a human pilot could survive the flight.  A few days before the test flight was to take place, Yeager suffered cracked ribs in a horseback riding incident.  Some wondered if he would be able to make the flight.  On October 14, 1947, Yeager answered those questions when he broke the sound barrier flying the X-1.   True romantics might find it interesting that the Bell X-1 was named Glamorous Glennis.  Yeager named all aircraft assigned to him some name that was associated with his wife.



Most men dream of making their mark in history.  Yeager seemed to accomplish one fete only to seek new goals.  He never rested.  By 1952, he was back in the cockpit setting a new record.  He recored an air speed more than twice the speed of sound by flying 1650 miles per hour.  Yeager continued to fly test flights in Korea and even commander a fighter squadron in Europe.


In 1956, the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in the space race.  Yeager wasn’t going to sit this one out either.  He commanded the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilots School which was responsible for the training of pilots for the United States space program.  While serving in this capacity, he supervised the development of the space simulator.  He also supervised the introduction of advanced computers to Air Force pilots.


When it came time to select astronauts for the Unites States space program, Yeager would have seemed to be a logic choice.  But that was not to be.  He was passed over for lack of a college degree.  It is interesting to note that nearly half of all who were chosen to be astronauts to serve in the Gemini, Mercury, and Apollo programs, were graduates of Chuck Yeager’s school.  Still, he continued to reacher higher and fly faster.  In 1963, while flying an experimental plane, the Starfighter, developed by Lockheed, Yeager felt the engines shut off.  With the plane spinning , Yeager was forced to abandon the aircraft.  Debris from the ejector seat became tangled in Yeager’s parachute and burst into flames.  The compression suit worn by Yeager caught fire.  Even though he survived the fall, Chuck Yeager suffered from burns which required extensive skin grafts.


Three years late, in 1966, the Air Force space school was closed.  Training of astronauts was taken over the the National Aeronautical Space Administration.  Yeager still did not retire.  He was now a full colonel.  With war in Vietnam raging, he became the commander of the 405th fighter wing out of the Philippines.  He flew 127 air-support missions and trained bomber pilots.


By 1968, Yeager had been promoted to brigadier general in the United States Air Force, a station to which few enlisted men have ever risen.  In 1970, General Yeager continued to serve his nation, this time as U.S. Defense Representative to the nation of Pakistan.  At the time, Pakistan was at war with India.  General Yeager supervised Pakistan’s air defense. Five years late, 1975, General Chuck Yeager retired.   He and Glennis moved to Grass Valley, California.   However, retirement for Yeager was not typical. For years he continued to serve as a consulting test pilot.


Without question, he became the most famous test pilot of all time.   For his service and accomplishments, Yeager was honored many times.  He was awarded the two highest honors for service that the United States bestows upon someone.  In 1976, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal which was presented to him by President Gerald Ford.  He was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan.  He was also decorated with a number of military honors:  the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star with V device, the Air Force Commendation medal, the Silver Star with oak leaf cluster, the Legion of Merit with oak leaf cluster, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross with two clusters, and the Air Medal with ten clusters.


Yeager was also honored with a number of Civilian awards:  the Harmon International Trophy in 1954 and the Collier and Mackay Trophies in 1948.  In 1973, he was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame.  He was the first and youngest military pilot to be honored with this induction.


His life story was told in a bestselling nonfiction book, The Right Stuff written by Tom Wolfe, which was released in 1979.  A few years late in 1983, under the same name, the motion picture industry put his life on the silver screen. Yeager became a corporate spokesman and was in high demand on the lecture circuit for a number of years.


In 1990, Yeager lost his co-pilot in life, his beloved Glennis, wife of 45 years to ovarian cancer.  In 2000, on a hiking trail in Nevada County, Yeager met victoria Scott D’Angelo, an actress considerably young than himself.  Three years later, they married, but not without objection from his children.  The contention took the family into court for resolution.


On the 50th anniversary of his historic flight in the X-1, October 14, 1997, Yeager made his last flight as a military consultant.  On this historic day, in an F-15 fighter plane, he once again broke the speed of sound.


Today, he  and his wife, live in Penn Valley, California where the General Chuck Yeager Foundation is located.  The foundation supports programs for the purpose of teaching the ideals by which General Yeager has lived.




All photos are in the public domain.

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