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If you like Chuck Yeager's story, you might also like:
Tom Clancy,
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Chuck Yeager
Chuck Yeager
Profile of Chuck Yeager Biography of Chuck Yeager Interview with Chuck Yeager Chuck Yeager Photo Gallery

Chuck Yeager Interview (page: 2 / 8)

First Man to Break the Sound Barrier

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  Chuck Yeager

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 Interview Photo
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!"

Chuck Yeager Interview Photo

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.

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.

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.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Around six years after you broke the sound barrier, you broke another big record in 1953. Tell us about the exploits with the X-1A.

Chuck Yeager: To go back a little bit, the Air Force, or military pilots, had never been allowed to do research flying. Research flying was always done by civilian pilots who worked as test pilots for the company that built the airplane. And the X-1 was the same way.

When the X-1 was finished in 1946, Bell Company test pilots, who were civilian, did the initial twenty-some flights on the airplane, for tremendous amounts of bonus money. And that's the way the Air Force got its hands on the X-1 and put a military pilot such as myself in the cockpit. The civilian pilot wanted an exorbitant amount of money to take the airplane supersonic, or to try to take it supersonic. And when Bell Aircraft Company had a contract with him, he had a contract for bonus money, but he wanted it paid over a five-year period. Now see, all this money comes out of the Air Force's pocket to support the test program. They paid for everything. So when he started delaying the program, in the spring of 1947, because he wasn't getting the kind of money that he wanted out of Bell Aircraft Company, well the Air Force saw a marvelous opportunity. In fact, Colonel Boyd saw a marvelous opportunity. He said, "I'll get my hands on the airplane, and we'll let an Air Force pilot, who is much better qualified, because the Air Force test pilots fly every airplane that every company builds." A civilian test pilot only flies that airplane which his company built. We were all combat veterans, not all of us, but most of the guys that came back, especially myself, were combat veterans. We could fly airplanes, obviously. And so that was the reason that we finally got an Air Force pilot in the X-1.

Now, 1953. Here Bell was right back into the same old routine. They had a civilian test pilot hired to fly the X-1A. The X-1A differed from the X-1. It was an airplane about seven feet longer, carried almost twice as much fuel, it had the same wing, same tail and the same engine and it was predicted that the airplane would go more than twice the speed of sound. Whereas the X-1, the fastest we could ever get it to go was about 1.5 mach number and you run out of fuel. So this Bell test pilot, he flew the X-1A some six flights. He never did get it even above the speed of sound because he had no experience in that kind of flying. I used to chase him in an F-86D, on his wing. You could see the shock waves on the airplane and the buffeting, which was normal, because we had gone through that sequence with the X-1. But the guy, because of a lack of experience and knowledge, never took the airplane above the speed of sound. And finally, he killed himself in an X-2, back at Bell Aircraft Company. They had it under a B-50 mother ship, and they were running some liquid oxygen top-off tests on the airplane. It exploded, blew the airplane and him out of the aircraft and killed him. So there sat the X-1A with Bell Aircraft Company with no pilot. And so they came to the Air Force. They said, "Okay, here is your airplane, it's yours." So they put me in the airplane to fly it.

Since I had been chasing him, I intimately knew the airplane, the systems, and it was basically the same as the old X-1, except we didn't use high pressure nitrogen gas to do the work. We used hydrogen peroxide generators, turbine pumps and things like that. So on the first flight that I flew the X-1A, we were coming up on the fiftieth anniversary of the Wright Brothers' flight, December 17, 1953. This was in October or November when the X-1A became my program. Jack Ridley and I sat down. Since we wanted to get the airplane out beyond mach two by December 17, we worked out a profile on how we can get the airplane as fast as it possibly would go. We worked out this profile of dropping out of the B-50 at 30,000 feet, firing off three of the four chambers on your rocket motor, accelerate out to .8 mach, then climb up to 45,000 feet, level out, fire off the fourth chamber so you got full power, take it out to about 1.1 through the speed of sound, then climb at supersonic speeds in about a 45-degree climb angle and at 60,000 feet you start leveling out. You become level at about 72,000 feet, and you hold it there at 72,000 feet, and accelerate like mad until you run out of fuel. And we looked at our figures, Jack and I, working up this profile. We knew we could get quite a bit above mach two, but we didn't think that we would get out to two and one-half times the speed of sound. In fact, the Bell engineers said, "You better be careful above about 2.2 mach number because we really don't know what we are getting into out here and no one else does either. We haven't got any wind tunnel data, nothing has ever been out there before."

And so, the first flight that I flew on the airplane, I was just practicing this profile, and also wanted to take it out to supersonic speeds. So I just cranked three chambers, ran it up, leveled out, and let it run out to about 1.3 mach number. And it flew just like the X-1 did. We lost the elevator effectiveness, I had to use the stabilizer to fly through mach 1. So then, I jettisoned the rest of the fuel, I came on down and landed. Then the second flight, three of four days later, I took the airplane on up to about 50,000 feet, kept it level and I got 1.5 mach, which was the fastest we'd ever had the old X-1, number one airplane. And then the third flight, a few days later, I took it on up to 1.9 mach, just under mach 2, at about 65,000 feet. And hey, it was really flying nice. I had a pressure suit on, in case you lose your canopy or if you lose your cockpit pressurization, you can stay alive with a pressure suit above 50,000 feet.

And on the fourth flight, I think it was on December 12, everything went beautiful. The drop was right on speed, and the chambers ignited when you flick the switch. The profile was beautiful. The only thing that happened, on the climb out, on all four chambers running and you're really accelerating - you fly off of a little eight ball flight indicator for attitude reference. And, you have a pressure suite, you've got filament wires in the visor of your suite. You have to keep those hot to keep your visor from fogging up. I let the airplane get up a little bit steep. I was busy regulating the pressures in the chamber to get maximum thrust out of the engine, and I got the airplane just a little bit steep, probably pushing 65 degrees angle of attack rather than 45. As I went through 60,000 feet, it began to push the airplane over. There are a lot of things that happen to an airplane mechanically up there. You have liquid oxygen in a tank and, if go to zero G, flying the parabolic curve, at zero G that oxygen cavitates because there is nothing to hold it down in the bottom of the tank. And so you have to hold about a tenth of a G on the way over. I floated right on through 70,000 feet up to 80,000 feet, which was about 10,000 feet higher. I hung on, and I'm sitting there looking as the mach meter went up to about three. And as I went through something like 2.3 mach number, man we were really smoking. We were picking up about 31 miles per hour, per second. And I watched this thing, and as we went through about 2.3 mach number, the airplane began to yaw. I said, man, something's not right. I pushed on rudder to try to get the nose back, and nothing happened, the airplane just kept yawing. Then, the outside wing, because of dihedral effect, begins coming up. Next I'm cranking on full aileron and full rudder, and nothing happens. The airplane rolled, inverted, pitched up, and when that happened, the canopy busted on it. And when that happened, the suit inflated. Then the airplane really got wound up in some snap rolls, and the data shows that we had a rotational rate of about 580 degrees per second, which is twice per second going around. And you get exposed to a lot of high Gs. Like we were getting 9 Gs positive, 2 Gs side load, 3 negative, 2 side load, 9 positive. You go through two cycles of each per second. And you really don't know what's going on other than, I figured that either the tail had come off the airplane or something had happened. So, I just pretty well rode it. You know, you see sky and ground flashing. You get rattled, but you never become unconscious. I just hung on to the airplane pretty well. The first thing that I recognized was that I came out with a tremendous inverted, negative G flat spin. Well, we spin airplanes all the time. So you recognize a characteristic airplane flat spinning, inverted. You can get it out by putting the aileron with the spin direction, and using the rudder to stop it, and make it fall through. And it did. And then the airplane flipped into a normal spin, which is an upright spin. I say normal because that's the way normally an airplane spins, upright. It flipped into a normal spin, and I just popped the nose out with the elevator and opposite rudder to stop it and recover it. And when this happened, I was down, I was about fifty miles from Rogers Dry Lake, at 25,000 feet. I was sitting there looking and the pressurization was gone out of the cockpit. Part of the canopy was gone, my suit was inflated, it had kept me alive. I looked around, I finally spotted the lake bed and turned toward it. And from the time the airplane yawed and ran out of fuel up there at 2.5 mach number, till I popped it out of the spin at 25,000 feet, was only 51 seconds. But 51 seconds, if you will look at your watch, is a long time. And so I just glided on back to the base, and landed. And that's the last flight I made in the airplane. And we never did take it above about mach two anymore.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

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

Isn't there a tape of what you went through on that?

Chuck Yeager Interview Photo
Chuck Yeager: Yes. We didn't say anything, obviously, because you are wasting your time if you talk. The object is to try to survive, and basically I think the tape started, it covers the whole flight until I get all four chambers on and then smoke out. Then we didn't say anything until the end of the tumble when I called Jack Ridley and told him that I had a problem and didn't know if I could get the airplane back to base. It was a big job for them to find me because I was way high and they were chasing me in F-86s. But, I just brought the airplane down and landed it on the lake bed, they changed the canopy, and the airplane was ready to fly again.

But we never did take it out to that speed because the airplane had a very small tail on it, horizontal stabilizer and vertical stabilizer, rudder and elevator. When we went through about 2.2 mach number, the conical shock wave that forms on the nose of the airplane comes down as you go faster. It's not flat, it's conical in shape and when we got out to about 2.3 or 2.4 mach number, this shock wave is down to where it's almost at the tip of the horizontal and vertical stabilizer. And when that thing coned in like that, we lost stability on all three axes of the airplane. It just flew apart. Fortunately the airplane was stressed for 18 Gs positive or negative, so we didn't break it up. Just through pure instinct, you sort of recover from the inverted spin into a normal spin, and bring it back and land it.

At the end of that flight, weren't you kind of joking about it?

Chuck Yeager Interview Photo
Chuck Yeager: Well, you always do. Basically, some smart-assed remark or something about a structural demonstration. But you are relieved that the thing didn't kill you. That's about what it turns out to be.

And the funny thing about it was that was a full day for me. I got up about four o'clock. I was hunting ducks in the early morning, came over and was briefed on the flight, looked over the airplane and then flew it.

I think I got home about 4:30, and Glennis was all dressed up because I had to give a talk to the Navy League in Los Angeles that night. I drove all the way down there -- took about two-and-a-half hours -- and gave a talk. We got home about 2:30 the next morning.

You earned your pay that day.

Chuck Yeager: Yup. All 30 dollars of it.

Watch Sam Shepard portray General Chuck Yeager and recreate
the harrowing test flight in the X-1A from the film, "The Right Stuff."

Weren't you kind of beaten up, to go give a talk?

Chuck Yeager: Oh, your eyes are bloodshot from negative Gs, and you take a beating, but you either do or you don't. That's the way you look at it.

You've said that when you are in trouble, the last thing you do is talk. But I've always been struck by the kind of terseness of pilots like yourself, that ability to remain calm, or at least to sound calm.

Chuck Yeager: Well, yes. Obviously you don't say anything. Some movies show the guy flying an airplane that's on fire, trying to miss a school or... that's a bunch of crud, boy. There is only one thought: self-survival. You don't talk because that's not part of your survival. And that's the reason. There is a lot of misconceptions about emergencies in airplanes, but basically that's the way it happens, and you either survive or you don't. It's just duty.

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This page last revised on Dec 10, 2013 01:50 EDT