Brigadier General Charles E. Yeager, USAF (Retired) is considered to be the most legendary test pilot of all time, being the first human to break the sound barrier.
Chuck Yeager was born in 1923 in Myra, West Virginia, and grew up in the nearby village of Hamlin. His childhood was filled with athletic endeavors, from baseball to football to track. In 1939 he made the decision to join the military and began his preparation by attending the Citizens' Military Training Camp at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana. This training carried through a good portion of the winter of 1940 and served only to further strengthen Chuck's resolve to join the military. So, on September 12, 1941, he joined the Army Air Corps as a private.
With the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent entry of the United States in World War II, Yeager was transferred to Victorville Air Base (now George Air Force Base) in California. He was assigned to work on AT-11 aircraft and was very successful, receiving quick promotions to private first class and then to corporal. By July 1942, Yeager had been accepted for pilot training in the flying sergeant program.
On March 10, 1943, Yeager received his pilot wings from Luke Field in Phoenix, Arizona, and was promoted from corporal to flight officer. He went to officer training school at Ellington Field in Texas and then served over the summer at Mather Field and Moffet Field (both in California). In September, Yeager was assigned to the 363 flight batallion and was trained on the F-39 for two months in the United States. In November, Yeager was transferred to England; he was about to see active combat.
Chuck started off 1944 with seven successful combat runs over France in the P-51, shooting down one German ME-109 and a German HE-111K. His eighth mission resulted in him being shot down over German-occupied France in what was more or less an eight-on-one fight, where he had to literally run for his life. Eventually, the French underground resistance aided him in escaping to Spain.
Yeager was finally able to return to England in the summer of 1944, and he requested permission directly from General Dwight Eisenhower that he be returned to active combat duty; Eisenhower agreed and promoted him to Second Lieutenant for his valor. Yeager returned to fighting in the air and flew fifty six more successful combat missions (including one notable one where he shot down a German jet from a prop plane), downing eleven more German aircraft; during this successful run he was again promoted to the rank of Captain.
In 1945, Yeager returned to the United States and became an instructor pilot, teaching new pilots at Perrin Field in Texas. His skill as a pilot was not forgotten, though, and he was transferred in July 1945 to Wright Field in Ohio where he participated in test flying the P-80 "Shooting Star" and the P-84 "Thunderjet." He also was involved in evaluating captured German and Japanese aircraft brought back to the US after the war. This high-security task, done in a successful fashion, resulted in Yeager being selected as pilot of the nation's first research rocket aircraft, the Bell X-1.
Yeager spent all of 1946 and some of 1947 simply training to fly such a machine, but when his time came to pass in August 1947, he was ready. Assigned to Muroc Air Base in California in August, Yeager was the project officer on the Bell XS-1 and on October 14, 1947, did what many said couldn't be done: he became the first human to break the sound barrier in an X-S1 high over the skies of California.
The next five years were filled with a great number of test flights of the X-1 and other rocket powered aircraft for Yeager. He flew the X-1 more than 40 times, exceeding 1000 miles per hour on several occasions. He also was the first American to make a ground takeoff in a rocket powered aircraft in 1949. To say that these missions were dangerous is an understatement; he was literally on the bleeding edge of flight technology at the time.
In 1952, Yeager attended the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama; this was to prepare him for his promotion to squadron flight commander. Afterwards, he returned to test flights, and in December 1953 he flew the Bell X-1A at Mach 2.5. When he approached this speed at 80,000 feet in altitude, the aircraft spun out of control, spinning on all three axes. The incredible G-forces snapped Yeager's head into the canopy, literally cracking it open; the G-force also bent the control stick into a U shape. He dropped 51,000 feet in 51 seconds, but somehow managed to regain control of the plane at 25,000 feet and land safely. His speed record held for the next three years, which was an eternity in the world of test flights at the time.
In early 1954, Yeager received the Harmon Trophy from President Eisenhower for valor in flight testing, and then was transferred to Hahn Air Force Base in West Germany to command the 417th Fighter Squadron. He served there for three years, leading his squadron to first place in the 1956 Weapons Gunnery Meet. He also was placed in command of the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilots School to train pilots for the space program; although Yeager was passed over for service in the space program, almost half the Gemini, Mercury, and Apollo astronauts passed through Yeager's school.
In 1957, Yeager returned to the United States and after serving in the 413th Fighter Wing for a short while, he was placed in charge of the 1st Fighter Squadron, who were flying the brand-new F-100 "Super Sabres." By 1961, Yeager had graduated from the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, paving the way for future military advancement, and in 1962 he became commandant of the Aerospace Research Pilot School (now the USAF Test Pilot School), where all military astronauts were trained.
Throughout all this, Yeager continued to train for and execute test flights. On December 10, 1963, Yeager was testing an experimental Lockheed Starfighter NF-104 rocked augmented aerospace trainer; he was travelling at roughly Mach 2.1 at a height of 108700 feet. Suddenly, the plane spun out of control and the plane dropped 21 miles and crashed; during the last half of the fall, the plane was largely a fireball. Yeager was able to eject at 8,500 feet, but was aflame himself and trapped within the full pressure suit needed for high-altitude flights, which was burning around him. Yeager somehow survived this, but he had to go through extensive skin grafting for his burns.
in 1966, the Air Force space school was closed, reverting to control of NASA, so Yeager was placed in command of the 405th Fighter Wing at Clark Air Base in the Phillippines. He flew 127 missions in South Vietnam over the next two years and was promoted to the rank of Colonel.
In 1968, Yeager assumed command of the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina and along with the wing was deployed to Korea during the USS Pueblo crisis. In July 1969 he became vice commander of the 7th Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in West Germany, and in August was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General. In 1970, he assumed duties as the United States Defense Representative to Pakistan, and in August 1973 he became director of the Air Force Inspection and Safety Center at Norton Air Force Base in California.
In 1973, Chuck Yeager was elected to the Aviation Hall of Fame.
In 1975, Chuck retired from active duty in the U.S. Air Force but continued to serve as a consulting test pilot for many years. He received the Special Congressional Silver Medal in 1976 for bravery and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985. He flew his last test flight on October 14, 1997, on the fiftieth anniversary of his breakage of the sound barrier, by breaking the sound barrier in an F-15 fighter jet.
In all, General Chuck Yeager has flown 201 types of military aircraft and has more than 14,000 flying hours, with more than 13,000 of these in fighter aircraft. He remains an active aviation enthusiast, acting as advisor for various films, programs and documentaries on aviation. He currently serves on the Boards of Directors of Louisiana Pacific Corp., the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. He was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to serve on the National Commission on Space and the commission to investigate the space shuttle Challenger accident in 1986. He remains a consultant test pilot for the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base.
Much of this information is documented in the excellent book The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe; an excellent motion picture based on the book was made in 1983 and stars Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager.
In short, Chuck Yeager is probably the most famous and most important test pilot to have ever served the United States.