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Chuck Yeager

Chuck Yeager

Chuck Yeager was born in 1923 in Myra, West Virginia. He grew up in nearby Hamlin. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps in September 1941, and was soon called to action. On his ninth mission, Yeager was shot down in occupied France, and made his way to Spain and eventually back to England in time to lead a squadron during the D-day invasion on October 12, 1944. By the end of the war, he had shot down 13 German planes.

Yeager's accomplishments during World War II and his quick reflexes and natural instincts made him an ideal candidate for the newly created Army Air Force test pilot program located in Dayton, Ohio. The military believed that increased aircraft speed would provide pilots with a distinct combat advantage, so aircraft speed became one of the primary focuses of the test pilot program. An excellent benchmark for the military was to develop a plane that could travel at Mach 1 speed or greater. Mach 1, a speed of about 660 miles per hour, is the speed at which sound travels through air.

On October 14, 1947, Yeager's Bell X-1 aircraft was placed inside the bomb bay of a B-29 bomber and brought to an altitude of 26,000 ft. With 24-year-old Yeager in the cockpit, his plane was released at 25,000 feet. Using 2 of his 4 engine chambers, Yeager climbed to 42,000 feet, at which point he switched on his third engine chamber. His speed indicator crept up to 700 miles per hour, 1.06 times the speed of sound for his altitude. A characteristic "sonic boom" let bystanders on the ground know he had passed Mach 1.

Yeager's career as a pilot was far from over. He piloted test flights during the Korean War and later flew 126 combat support missions during the Vietnam War. As commander of the Air Force's Aerospace Research Pilot School, he trained 19 astronauts. Chuck Yeager retired as a brigadier general in 1975. He continued, however, to contribute his expertise to the development of the next generation of airplanes as a test pilot. On the 50th anniversary of his historic flight, 74-year-old Yeager flew an F-15 Eagle at supersonic speeds. Ironically, most of Yeager's recent test flights were at subsonic speeds. Subsonic aircraft fly at speeds less than the speed of sound. Examples of such aircraft include the F-117 fighter and B-2 bomber. Both of these planes traded speed for stealth.