On this day in 1947, U.S. Air Force Capt. Chuck Yeager becomes the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound.
Yeager, born in Myra, West Virginia, in 1923, began WW2 service in the Army Air Corps, enlisting after high school as a flight mechanic. He was eventually elevated to combat fighter pilot, flying 64 missions over Europe, most in the P-51 Mustang. He shot down 13 German aircraft and was himself shot down over France, escaping capture with the assistance of the French Underground.
After the war, Yeager was among several volunteers chosen to test-fly the experimental X-1 rocket plane, built by the Bell Aircraft Company to explore the possibility of supersonic flight. For years, many aviators believed that man was not meant to fly faster than the speed of sound, theorizing that transonic drag rise would tear any aircraft apart.
All that changed on October 14, 1947, when Yeager flew the X-1 over Rogers Dry Lake in Southern California. The X-1 was lifted to an altitude of 25,000 feet by a B-29 aircraft and then released through the bomb bay, rocketing to 40,000 feet and exceeding 662 miles per hour (the sound barrier at altitude). The rocket plane, nicknamed “Glamorous Glennis,” was designed with thin, un-swept wings and a streamlined fuselage modeled after a .50-caliber bullet.
Because of the secrecy of the project, Yeager’s achievement was not announced until June 1948. Yeager continued to serve as a test pilot, and in 1953 he flew 1,650 miles per hour in an X-1A rocket plane. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1975 with the rank of brigadier general.
For those of us who worry for the daily loss of WW2-era elders, and believe there’s no learned hand on the Great Tiller, Gen. Yeager is still alive and well at 96. He may be contacted at his website.