All achievers

General Chuck Yeager, USAF

First Man to Break the Sound Barrier

It’s your duty to fly the airplane. If you get killed in it, you don’t know anything about it anyway. Duty is paramount. It’s that simple if you’re a military guy. You don’t say ‘I’m not going to do that — that’s dangerous.' If it’s your duty to do it, that’s the way it is.

Chuck Yeager is unquestionably the most famous test pilot of all time. He won a permanent place in the history of aviation as the first pilot ever to fly faster than the speed of sound, but that is only one of the remarkable feats this pilot performed in service to his country.

Charles Elwood Yeager was born in 1923 in Myra, West Virginia and grew up in the nearby village of Hamlin. Immediately upon graduation from high school he enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps to serve in World War II.

Captain Chuck Yeager with the X-1 supersonic research aircraft in 1947, shortly after breaking the sound barrier. (US Air Force)
Captain Chuck Yeager with the X-1 supersonic research aircraft in 1947, shortly after breaking the sound barrier.

Shot down over enemy territory only one day after his first kill in 1943, Yeager evaded capture, and with the aid of the French resistance, made his way across the Pyrenees to neutral Spain. Although army policy prohibited his return to combat flight, Yeager personally appealed to General Dwight D. Eisenhower and was allowed to fly combat missions again. In all, he flew 64 combat missions in World War II. On one occasion he shot down a German jet from a prop plane. By war’s end he had downed 13 enemy aircraft, five in a single day.

On October 14, 1947, the Bell X-1 became the first airplane to fly faster than the speed of sound. Piloted by U.S. Air Force Captain Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager, the X-1 reached a speed of 1,127 kilometers (700 miles) per hour, Mach 1.06, at an altitude of 13,000 meters (43,000 feet). Yeager named the airplane "Glamorous Glennis" in tribute to his wife.
October 14, 1947: The Bell X-1 became the first airplane to fly faster than the speed of sound. Piloted by Air Force Captain Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager, the X-1 reached a speed of 1,127 kilometers (700 miles) per hour, Mach 1.06, at an altitude of 13,000 meters (43,000 feet). Yeager named the airplane “Glamorous Glennis” in tribute to his wife.

After the war, Yeager continued to serve the newly constituted United States Air Force as a flight instructor and test pilot. In 1947, he was assigned to test the rocket-powered X-1 fighter plane. At the time, no one knew if a fixed-wing aircraft could fly faster than sound, or if a human pilot could survive the experience. Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier on October 14, 1947, only days after cracking several ribs in a horseback riding accident. In 1952, he set a new air speed record of 1650 mph, more than twice the speed of sound. He flew test flights in Korea, and commanded a fighter squadron in Europe.

Left side view of Bell X-1 "Glamorous Glennis" in flight over Muroc Air Force Base, flown by Charles Elwood "Chuck" Yeager and photographed by Robert A. Hoover from Lockheed FP-80 chase plane, 1948. The Bell X-1 was initially called the XS-1 for "experimental - supersonic." The designation was later simplified to X-1. The X-1 program was the first of a series of "X" experimental manned and unmanned projects that continues to this day.
Left side view of Bell X-1 “Glamorous Glennis” in flight over Muroc Air Force Base, flown by Charles Elwood “Chuck” Yeager and photographed by Robert A. Hoover from Lockheed FP-80 chase plane, 1948. The Bell X-1 was initially called the XS-1 for “experimental – supersonic.” The designation was later simplified to X-1. The X-1 program was the first of a series of “X” experimental manned and unmanned projects that continues to this day.

After the onset of the space race in 1956, Yeager commanded the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilots School to train pilots for the space program. In this capacity, Yeager supervised development of the space simulator and the introduction of advanced computers to Air Force pilots. Although Yeager himself was passed over for service in space, nearly half of the astronauts who served in the Gemini, Mercury and Apollo programs were graduates of Yeager’s school.

December 17, 1948, Washington, D.C.: President Truman awards the Collier Air Trophy, commonly rated aviation's highest honor, to the three men who will share the honor for the part they played in the first human faster-than-sound flight. Left to right are John Stack of Hampton, Virginia, research scientist on the staff of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics; President Truman; Captain Charles E. Yeager, Air Force test pilot who made the first flight; and Lawrence D. Bell, president of Bell Aircraft Corporation of Buffalo. (Bettmann/CORBIS)
December 17, 1948, Washington, D.C.: President Harry Truman awards the Collier Air Trophy, commonly rated aviation’s highest honor, to the three men who will share the honor for the part they played in the first human faster-than-sound flight. Left to right are John Stack of Hampton, Virginia, research scientist on the staff of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics; President Truman; Captain Charles E. Yeager, Air Force test pilot who made the first flight; and Lawrence D. Bell, the president of Bell Aircraft Corporation of Buffalo. (Bettman)

In 1963, Yeager was flying the experimental Lockheed Starfighter at over twice the speed of sound when the engine shut off and he was forced to abandon the spinning aircraft. Yeager’s compression suit was set on fire by the burning debris from the ejector seat, which became entangled in his parachute. He survived the fall, but required extensive skin grafts for his burns.

January 21, 1949, Los Angeles: Air Force Captain Charles Yeager, 25, has spent more time flying supersonic jet planes than any other person. (Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS)
1949: Air Force Captain Charles Yeager, 25, has spent more time flying supersonic jet planes than any other person.

The Air Force space school was closed in 1966, as NASA took over the training of astronauts. During the Vietnam War, Yeager — now a full colonel — commanded the 405th fighter wing out of the Philippines, flying 127 air-support missions, and training bomber pilots.

1962: Jackie Cochran and Colonel Chuck Yeager, the first woman and man to break the sound barrier, walk away from an aircraft after a flight, Edwards Air Force Base, California. Their friendship lasted until her death in 1980. (Courtesy photo)
1962: Jackie Cochran and Colonel Chuck Yeager, the first woman and man to break the sound barrier, walk away from an aircraft after a flight, Edwards Air Force Base, California. Their friendship lasted until her death in 1980.

In 1968, Yeager was promoted to brigadier general. He is one of a very few who have risen from enlisted man to general in the Air Force. In 1970, General Yeager served as U.S. Defense Representative to Pakistan and supervised Pakistan’s air defense in its war with India. He retired from the Air Force in 1975, but continued to serve as a consulting test pilot for many years.

General Chuck Yeager presents the Academy of Achievement's Golden Plate Award to Olympic gold medalist Mary Lou Retton.
Awards Council member General Chuck Yeager presents the American Academy of Achievement’s Golden Plate Award to Olympic gold medal gymnast Mary Lou Retton at the 1985 Banquet of the Golden Plate in Denver, CO.

In 1976, Chuck Yeager was awarded the Congressional Silver Medal, presented to him by President Gerald Ford. President Ronald Reagan later honored him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. These are the highest honors the nation bestows for outstanding service or achievement. General Yeager’s other decorations include 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. His civilian awards include the Harmon International Trophy (1954) and the Collier and Mackay Trophies (1948). He was the first and the youngest military pilot to be inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame (1973).

Retired Air Force General Chuck Yeager answers questions from the media, during a press conference honoring the 50th anniversary of his first supersonic flight, at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1949 in a Bell X-1 aircraft similar to the one behind him, nicknamed "Glamourous Glennis."
1997: General Yeager honoring the 50th anniversary of his first supersonic flight at Edwards Air Force Base. Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947 in a Bell X-1, similar to the aircraft behind him, nicknamed “Glamourous Glennis.”

A bestselling nonfiction book, The Right Stuff (1979), by Tom Wolfe, and the popular film of the same title (1983), made Yeager’s name a household word among Americans too young to remember Yeager’s exploits of the 1950s. Yeager’s autobiography enjoyed phenomenal success, and he remains much in demand on the lecture circuit and as a corporate spokesman. Chuck Yeager made his last flight as a military consultant on October 14, 1997, the 50th anniversary of his history-making flight in the X-1. He observed the occasion by once again breaking the sound barrier, this time in an F-15 fighter.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1974

“It didn’t make any difference to me whether I thought the airplane would go faster than sound. I was assigned as a test pilot on it, and it was my duty to fly it.”

The plane was the X-1, the year was 1947, the pilot was Chuck Yeager. But even before he made history by breaking the sound barrier, Yeager’s exploits during World War II had made him a legend among his fellow flyers.

Shot down over occupied France, the wounded flyer successfully evaded capture and crossed the Pyrenees into neutral Spain, before returning to his squadron in England. Returning to the skies, he shot down five German planes in a single day, an extraordinary feat.

After the war, Yeager broke speed records again and again, testing new planes for the U.S Air Force. He served in both Korea and Vietnam, and helped train the first generation of U.S. astronauts. Along the way, he survived an incredible series of harrowing accidents. The bestselling book and hit movie The Right Stuff, and his own bestselling autobiography, Yeager, brought him international fame, but his courage and resourcefulness had already assured his place in the history of aviation.

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Captain Charles E. Yeager (shown standing next to the Air Force's Bell-built X-1 supersonic research aircraft) became the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound in level flight on October 14, 1947. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Captain Charles E. Yeager (shown standing next to the U.S. Air Force’s Bell-built X-1 supersonic research aircraft) became the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound in level flight on October 14, 1947. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Tell us about the day you broke the sound barrier in the X-1. We understand that you weren’t feeling too great in the rib area.

Keys to success — Perseverance

Chuck Yeager: The X-1, to me, was a sort of a “fly twice a week” airplane. It took two or three days to reduce the data from your flight. It was a complex airplane that gets serviced with liquid oxygen and alcohol and gaseous nitrogen. And in the meantime, I’m flying about 15 other airplanes every day, on different test programs, so it was a hard grind. The X-1 was a pleasure to fly, because you took the whole day to do it. That particular flight, I think was on a Tuesday. On the weekends, there at Muroc, as it was called then, we used to go out to Pancho Barnes’s. She had a rodeo grounds, swimming pool, motel and a good restaurant. You’d go out there and unwind. And I took Glennis out there, I think, on a Saturday night. We loved to ride horses, so we went out after dinner and were riding horses and chasing each other. Coming back, somebody closed a gate, it was dark and I didn’t see it, so my horse hit the fence and flipped me, and I broke a couple of ribs. And that was on a Saturday night. Sunday I moped around, and then Monday, I had to go into the base, and I went to a local doctor there, and he said, “You’ve got two busted ribs. I’ll tape you up.” And it really didn’t make that much difference in flying the airplane, because it’s not strenuous other than handling it with your hands and feet on the rudder pedals and the control surfaces and the loading pressure domes and turning switches on, and things like that. So my only problem was, it was painful to get into the airplane, because you had to come down a ladder and go through a little hole on the right side. But then the hard part was closing the door once old Jack Ridley came down the ladder and held the door against the right side. You had a lever. It took both hands all you could do it. I couldn’t handle it with my right side, so he made me about a ten-inch long broomstick that I could stick in the end of the door handle to give me that mechanical advantage. That’s the way we solved the problem. So that really didn’t make much difference.

Did your superiors realize what was going on?

Chuck Yeager: We didn’t have superiors, so called. We were working test pilots at Muroc, and our boss, Colonel Boyd, was at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio. We were pretty well on our own. And that’s the way it was done in the old days. There was no big complex. No PR types and cameras and stuff like that. It was just a job. And that’s exactly what we were doing.

Bell X-1 "Glamorous Glennis" nose and cockpit. (Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution)
Bell X-1 “Glamorous Glennis” nose section and cockpit. (Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian)

You’ve described that flight as anticlimactic in some ways. Was that because it was unusually smooth?

Keys to success — Courage

Chuck Yeager: The X-1 was fun to fly, that’s the way we looked at it, because it was very interesting. When you do research flying, you are doing things and solving problems that no one else has been able to solve. So it was interesting to see all these things come along. The running out of elevator, that was new. All the engineers said, “Jeez, what’s going on?” Then flying with the flying tail, that was something new. And it turned out pretty good, really. Actually, you really don’t think about the outcome of any kind of a flight, whether it’s combat, or any other kinds of flights, because you really have no control over it. And that’s the way I looked at the X-1. You don’t worry about the outcome, obviously. You concentrate on what you are doing, to do the best job you can, to stay out of a serious situation. That’s the way the X-1 was. When we got it above mach one without it flying apart, you can laughingly say now, “Well, I was disappointed because it didn’t blow up.” But that’s not true. You are a little bit surprised that things didn’t fly apart because that’s the way you’ve been sort of thinking. But, when it didn’t you are relieved.

You weren’t initially planning a breakthrough that day?

Chuck Yeager: It’s not a matter of planning. We didn’t know. Number one, we didn’t know that we would ever break mach one. And as far as knowing when, we had no idea when. Because we didn’t know what was going on. And it just worked out that way.

One-half right rear view from below showing Bell X-1 "Glamorous Glennis" (s/n 46-062) in flight moments after release from Boeing EB-50A Superfortress (s/n 46-0006; c/n 15726) mothership.
October 14, 1947: Side view from below showing Bell X-1 “Glamorous Glennis” piloted by U.S. Air Force Captain Chuck Yeager after release from Boeing EB-50A Superfortress mothership and before breaking the sound barrier.

I gather that the descent that day was tricky.

Chuck Yeager: Well, no.

Keys to success — Preparation

The X-1 was a specialized airplane. It was a liquid rocket powered airplane. You sat against a liquid oxygen tank about 290 below zero. It was cold. You had a lot of wind chill, frosting sometimes, especially when your breath condensed on the windshield. Of course you had an oxygen mask on. You were in 100 percent nitrogen gas atmosphere. All of the landings in the X-1 were tricky. I mean, that’s the reason we used Rogers Dry Lake there at Muroc, now Edwards Air Force Base that the [space] shuttle lands on, because it was an easy lake to land on. And the X-1 was tricky to land, because it landed so fast, pushing 200 miles an hour. And all your landings were dead stick, meaning you flew it until you had exhausted all of your liquid oxygen and alcohol, so you were a glider, but a very fast glider. It was not difficult, because I was used to it.

Was it frustrating to you that the triumph of breaking through the sound barrier had to be kept quiet?

Chuck Yeager: Naw. We worked on a lot of classified programs. Even today, I work on classified programs, like Stealth technology. And to me, like I say, the X-1 was only one of about 12 or 15 different airplanes that I was flying weekly. And you were working on a lot of other test programs, so you didn’t pay any attention to it.

Long one-half left rear view of Bell X-1 "Glamorous Glennis" in flight over the Mojave Desert near Muroc Dry Lake, California; circa October 14, 1947. (NASA)
October 14, 1947: Bell X-1 “Glamorous Glennis” in flight over the Mojave Desert near Muroc Dry Lake, California.

Can you tell us what it’s like when you’re just about to be dropped from a B-29? What are you feeling?

Chuck Yeager: You don’t feel anything. You’re too busy. You’re going through your checklist, loading the pressure regulators, the dome, and checking all the instrumentation. And that’s about the way of it. You listen to the B-29 crew, who’s hauling you up, and you start diving to pick up speed so that he drops you out at a speed above your stall speed. Which, the stalling speed on the X-1 fully loaded was 240 miles an hour indicated, which is pretty fast. You’re heavy, and it’s a compact little airplane, and you come out of a dark place into bright sunlight, and for a second you’re kind of blinded. But it doesn’t take you long for your pupils to shrink down. And you really don’t give much thought to the drop. You are too busy.

But once you are dropped, there is no turning back.

Chuck Yeager: No, but they drop you within gliding distance of Rogers Dry Lake anyway, and if you don’t get an ignition, or can’t get your rocket engine running, which we did a couple times, then you jettison the fuel and go ahead and stick the airplane in.

April 19, 1949 issue of TIME magazine featuring Chuck Yeager on the cover. (Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
April 19, 1949 issue of TIME magazine featuring Chuck Yeager on the cover. (Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Now, just about a week or so after you broke the sound barrier, you had kind of an unpleasant experience, on the 27th of October.

Chuck Yeager: You mean when we had our battery fail? There again, you always try to leave yourself a way out, and we fortunately had put some small H-2 bailout bottles with nitrogen gas in them and tied them to the jettison valve so that if we lost all of our electrical systems, I still had a manual system of opening that valve and letting gaseous nitrogen open a jettison valve and get rid of the liquid oxygen and alcohol, because the airplane just wasn’t designed to land with that kind of weight aboard. And it worked. We had tried it out on the ground, and fortunately, it worked in the air.

That’s quick thinking under a lot of stress.

Chuck Yeager: Well, it’s not quick thinking, you know the system. That’s the reason I was picked for the X-1. It was easy for me to understand the systems. I knew them and, when something happened, I could pretty well analyze the problem and solve it.

Captain Chuck Yeager receives the gold medal of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale in ceremonies in Cleveland, Ohio, 1949. Yeager's wife Glennis looks on as William R. Enyart makes the presentation. (AP Images/Julian C. Wilson)
Captain Chuck Yeager receives the gold medal of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale in ceremonies in Cleveland, Ohio, 1949. Yeager’s wife Glennis looks on as William R. Enyart makes the presentation. (Julian Wilson)

Did Lady Luck have anything to do with that?

Chuck Yeager: Well, luck plays a big part in most everything you do. Sometimes if you’ve got bad luck, you don’t survive. If you’ve got good luck, you do. You’ve got to understand systems. Even in today’s airplanes, you have to understand systems. The better you understand them, the better off you are in case an emergency arises.

Tell us about the origin of the X-1 program. What was the purpose of that program? What were they hoping to accomplish?

Chuck Yeager: In World War II, in combat in P-51s, during dog-fights with 109s and 190s, for the first time we became exposed to the effects of the speed of sound on our airplanes. A Mustang, a P-47, or any of the other fighters that we were using in World War II, the fastest they would go was about 80 percent the speed of sound. They had very thick wings and canopies. That additional distance that the air had to travel to go around that wing that’s going at about 80 percent of the speed of sound brought its relative velocity to the skin of the wing up to the speed of sound. And when this happened a shock wave formed on the thickest part of the wings and the canopy. Behind these shock waves was turbulent air, and your airplane would shake and buffet. It wasn’t a hazard; it was just a nuisance if you were trying to track some guy at high speed.

November 16, 2015: Three-quarter right front view of the Bell X-1 "Glamorous Glennis" on the floor. Artificially darkened background. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C. Photo by Eric Long.
The Bell X-1 “Glamorous Glennis” on the floor of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. (Eric Long)

So we knew a problem existed because of the relationship of the speed of sound to the airplane. So in 1944, the Army Air Corps led a contract with Bell Aircraft Company to build a little research rocket that would fly in the reach of the speed of sound, or faster, to find out what was causing this buffeting phenomenon or compressibility that was affecting our airplanes, like the P-51s of World War II and immediately after World War II. In ’46 we developed jets that would fly out to about 80 percent of the speed of sound, straight and level. They ran into the same problem, because they had thick wings. Fortunately, we knew that we had a so-called sound barrier there; that we had to solve the problem, or we would never go any faster than we were doing at that time. And that’s the reason the X-1 was made — to solve those problems, or at least find out what was causing the compressibility or buffeting on the airplane.

How was the X-1 built to try and overcome that?

Keys to success — Vision

Chuck Yeager: Well, number one, they built the airplane with very thin wings so that the airplane could go faster before it ran into the buffeting problems. It was rocket-powered, which meant that you had full thrust at altitude — jet engines decrease in thrust the higher you go — and it was built about two-and-one-half times stronger than airplanes that we were flying at that time. The airplanes that we used in World War II, and the ones that were built immediately after World War II, were stressed for 7.33 Gs, or 7.33 times the pull of gravity and, if you overstressed them, they would break, obviously. The wings would break off and the like. But the X-1 was stressed for 18 Gs, positive or negative. So it would stay together in case you run into a problem. And also, it had a moveable, horizontal stabilizer. The tail-plane on all airplanes just stabilizes, and you have elevators on the back to make the airplane go up and down. Well, they built the capability into the X-1 to move the whole angle of the horizontal stabilizer, change the angle with that. That really was the big secret on how we got the airplane through the speed of sound.

Did you think it was possible?

Keys to success — Courage

Chuck Yeager: It’s not a matter of thinking it’s possible. It’s duty. It’s just like flying combat. You know when you go on a combat mission, somebody is going to get killed. You just hope it isn’t you; if it is, that’s the way it goes. The same way with flying the X-1. It didn’t make any difference to me whether I thought the airplane would go faster than sound. I was assigned as a test pilot on it, and it was my duty to fly it. That’s the way most military pilots look at it.

Maj. Charles "Chuck" Yeager and the Bell X-1A at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Yeager reached speed of Mach 2.435, at a altitude of 75,000 feet on Dec. 12, 1953, a speed record at the time. It wasn't a perfect flight -- the aircraft had an inertial coupling phenomenon and went out of control. Once the X-1A entered the denser atmosphere (35,000 feet), it slowly stabilized and Yeager was able to return to the base. (Courtesy photo)
Major Charles “Chuck” Yeager and the Bell X-1A at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Yeager reached a speed of Mach 2.435, at an altitude of 75,000 feet on December 12, 1953, a speed record at the time. It wasn’t a perfect flight — the aircraft had an inertial coupling phenomenon and went out of control. Once the X-1A entered the denser atmosphere (35,000 feet), it slowly stabilized and Yeager was able to return to Edwards Air Force Base.

Chuck Yeager narrates harrowing spin caught on video from within the X-1A cockpit.

When we read about the early ideas of the sound barrier, there is almost a sense that people thought there was a real, literal barrier.

Chuck Yeager: Well, ignorance. We just didn’t know what would happen when we reached the speed of sound, because we didn’t have any wind tunnel data. We could put a model in the wind tunnel and blow air by it at supersonic speeds, but what happened, a shock wave would form on that model at about .9 mach, or 90 percent of the speed of sound, and that shock wave then would bounce off the wall of the tunnel, and it would choke up the tunnel. We didn’t have any data from about .9 mach to 1.1 mach. People really just didn’t know. It was ignorance. They thought that an airplane would never go faster than sound, because of the shock waves that built up on it. But, as I say, that really didn’t make any difference to me. I could care less. It’s your job to try it. And that’s the way it worked out.

When you finally reached .94 mach, you had a near disaster.

Chuck Yeager: Well, it wasn’t.

We just ran out of the ability to control the airplane because of the shock wave which had formed on the thickest part of the horizontal stabilizer, the tail fin of the airplane. This formed at about .88 mach number, and as we increased our mach number, this shock wave moved back and laid down. And at .94 mach number, that shock wave was on the tail, at the hinge point of the elevator, and we lost our elevator effectiveness. And it had been predicted that the X-1 would either pitch up or pitch down in the region of the speed of sound and, obviously, this worried us a little bit. You know, we have no way out now, so we have to take a hard look at this. We looked, and we had never tried to fly the airplane with the horizontal stabilizer, we had always used the elevators. Now we’ve lost our elevators. The next thing to do was to go up and see if we can fly it with the horizontal stabilizer. The way we did that was we took the airplane out to .94 mach number, where we lost our elevator effectiveness, and we could change the angle of attack of the horizontal stabilizer through a compressed nitrogen, jackscrew air motor system. It gets pretty complex. I took the airplane out to .94 mach number, where I had lost the elevator effectiveness, and changed the angle of attack of the horizontal stabilizer down about one degree, and the old airplane pulled about 3 Gs in a turn. I re-trimmed it back, and I said, “That’s neat!”

October 1997: Brigadier General Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager standing in front of his F-15 Eagle on the 50th anniversary of his becoming the first man to break the speed of sound. (U.S. Air Force photo)
October 14, 1997: Brigadier General Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager standing in front of his F-15 Eagle on the 50th anniversary of his historic flight to become the first man to break the speed of sound. (United States Air Force)

And we came down after flying it two or three times with the horizontal stabilizer. We came down and said, “Hey, we now have control of this thing with the horizontal stabilizers.” It only took us a couple more flights of controlling the airplane when it started nosing up a little bit, with the horizontal stabilizers to keep the nose down. As we went through mach one, the nose started dropping, so we just cranked that horizontal stabilizer down to keep the nose up. We got it above mach one, and once we got it above the speed of sound, then you have supersonic flow over the whole airplane, so you have no more shock waves on it that are causing buffeting. And it smoothed out. That was the big thing that came out of the whole X-1 program, was finding out that you needed a horizontal stabilizer to operate in the region of the speed of sound or above the speed of sound. That’s the reason on every fighter that you see today, you just see a slab tail back there, and no elevators.

A bronze statue of Chuck Yeager was unveiled in 2006, in a ceremony at Sound Barrier Park at Edwards Air Force Base, California, where Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947. (AP Images/Antelope Valley Press, Ron Siddle)
A bronze statue of Chuck Yeager was unveiled in 2006, in a ceremony at Sound Barrier Park at Edwards Air Force Base, California, where Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947. (AP Images/Antelope Valley Press, Ron Siddle)

There was a period in that test program where there were a lot of casualties. How did you deal with the high risk of what you were doing?

Chuck Yeager: Like I said before, you don’t give any thought to the outcome of things like that.

Keys to success — Integrity

It’s your duty to fly the airplane. If you get killed in it, you don’t know anything about it anyway, so why worry about it? That’s the way you looked at it and, actually, duty is paramount. It’s that simple when you are a military guy. You don’t say, “I’m not going to do that—that’s dangerous.” If it’s your duty to do it, that’s the way it is.