Chuck Yeager, the steely “Right Stuff” test pilot who took aviation to the doorstep of space by becoming the first person to break the sound barrier, died on Monday at the age of 97.
“It is with profound sorrow, I must tell you that my life love General Chuck Yeager passed just before 9pm ET,” said a tweet posted on Yeager’s account by his wife Victoria.
Yeager, an unlikely candidate to become one of the most famous aviators in history, joined the US Army Air Corps in 1941 just to work on the engines of airplanes, not to fly them. His first plane ride made him throw up.
Yeager was passed over for the burgeoning US space program because he never went to college but he was hardly heartbroken not to become an astronaut. He considered them mere passengers “throwing the right switches on instructions from the ground.”
Author Tom Wolfe was so impressed by the mien of the rough-hewn man from Hamlin, West Virginia, that he made Yeager a prominent character in “The Right Stuff,” his 1979 book about the early days of the space program.
Wolfe said Yeager was blessed with “the right stuff” that made him a legendary test pilot but Yeager said it was more a matter of luck, better-than-average vision and a thorough knowledge of his planes.
Those attributes served Yeager well in World War Two. Flying a P-51 Mustang named Glamorous Glennis in tribute to his girlfriend, Glennis Dickhouse, he was credited with 12 “kills” of German planes - including five in a single dogfight.
After the war he became a test pilot and was assigned to Muroc Air Force Base in California as part of the secret XS-1 project, which had a goal of hitting Mach 1, the speed of sound.
Yeager was a 24-year-old captain, testing out a dozen planes a week, when he first outraced sound on Oct. 14, 1947, in the bright orange Bell X-1 craft.