Your Captain Speaking: Chuck Yeager
“The right stuff” is a colloquial expression that has achieved an almost legendary connotation within aviation. It’s a term that sprung to life around the 1940s as a means of identifying the indescribable quality that defined top notch pilots. The right stuff – either you have it or you don’t. There is no defining it. In fact, part of the brotherhood of those who have it means not defining it. In this month’s Volare let’s take a brief look at the top of those pilots with the right stuff, Chuck Yeager.
Yeager was born February 13, 1923 in Myra, West Virginia to Susie and Albert Yeager. Albert owned a natural gas drilling business and as a young boy Chuck was fascinated with and could fix all the pumps, regulators and generators used in the business.
Chuck enlisted as an aircraft mechanic in the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) after graduating high school in 1941, just three months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The USAAF lowered their requirements (age and education) for pilots when the United States entered WWII. Yeager immediately applied for and was accepted into flight training. By the end of 1943 Chuck was flying the P-51 Mustang in combat over France. On March 5, 1944, Yeager’s Glamorous Glennis, named after his then-girlfriend, was shot down. He helped the French underground sabotage the German invaders for about a month before escaping to Spain. By the end of the war, Yeager was credited with 11.5 air-to-air victories, including one of the first over a jet fighter, the Messerschmitt Me-262. By the end of the war, Private Yeager had been promoted to Captain, flown 61 missions, and married his girlfriend.
After the war, Yeager moved to Muroc Army Air Field, now known as Edwards Air Force Base. At Muroc, when Yeager arrived, Bell Aircraft Corporation was developing the X-1 with the singular purpose of breaking the sound barrier (Mach 1), which many thought of as a physical wall that could not be overcome. A common theory said that planes would break apart as they approached the speed of sound. High-speed aerodynamics was, quite simply, not yet understood.
Compressibility is one of the major factors of high-speed flight. At low speeds, air is pushed out of the way of the plane (incompressible flow). At high speeds, the plane is moving too fast for the air to completely move out of the way and it compresses or its density (thickness) changes. Sufficiently high airspeeds also result in shock waves. Shock waves usually occur perpendicular to the vehicle’s surface and consist of an abrupt and large energy change. This sudden and drastic change immediately impacts the plane’s control surfaces and the airflow surrounding these control surfaces. In early wings, due to a lack of structural stiffness, these forces would twist the wings to the point that controls acted in reverse or opposite of their designed intent. This lack of stiffness in the structure could also lead to “flutter” – an instability in the structure that could result in severe if not catastrophic damage. Additionally, there is a phenomenon known as Mach tuck. Even at subsonic speeds, (below the speed of sound) the center of pressure of a plane can move aft and induce local shock waves, eventually resulting in a dramatic downward pitch. Today’s jets enjoy many technological advances to address these issues such as swept wings, improved control surfaces, wing washout and vortex generators to name a few.
When Bell’s chief test pilot, Slick Goodlin, demanded today’s equivalent of $1.5 million and additional hazard pay for every minute over Mach .85 the Air Force stepped in and took over the program. The opportunity to break the sound barrier was then given, by the Air Force, to Yeager.
Chuck Yeager thrived on pushing the boundaries of the flight envelope. He wasn’t an engineer; he didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to work. Despite breaking a couple ribs just days earlier, Yeager was at the controls of his X-1, Glamorous Glennis, when it was “drop launched” from a modified B-29 Superfortress Bomber on October 14, 1947. Minutes later, Yeager drawled over the radio, “…there’s somethin’ wrong with this ol’ machometer… and I’m still goin’ upstairs like a bat.” Seconds later a booming thunder roared across the clear skies of the Mojave Desert as U.S. Air Force Capt. Chuck Yeager nudged the experimental rocket-powered X-1 faster than the speed of sound. Though only a handful of people realized it at the time, Chuck Yeager became an immortal. The Air Force didn’t want Yeager or his accomplishment to become immortalized, not just yet anyway. Tensions in the Post-WWII climate were high and the “brass” didn’t want Russia to know its capabilities. Despite the attempt at secrecy, word soon got out. But, like with the Wright Brothers, no one seemed to care. Yeager celebrated his accomplishment by telling the local barkeep, and he did that only for the free steak – offered to the first pilot breaking the sound barrier.
The Air Force wouldn’t publicize the accomplishment until June 1948. Every time another pilot flew faster, Yeager went up again. By 1953, Yeager was taking the X-1A to Mach 2.4. Yeager left Edwards and the world of flight testing in 1954. He spent the next few years as a squadron commander.
At the dawn of the space race when Dwight D. Eisenhower called for astronaut applicants he directed NASA to select from the 540 military test pilots on duty “even though they were rather overqualified for the job.” The position of astronaut only required someone who would fit in a small capsule and had experience in physically dangerous situations. “The astronaut would not be expected to do anything; he only had to be able to take it.” Yeager was not among the applicants. Every indication makes this appear to be a mutually agreeable decision between the government and (then) Colonel Yeager.
Yeager didn’t see the job as one befitting a pilot. The Mercury capsule was initially designed to launch, fly, and “land” without input from the pilot. Many of the pilots at Edwards called astronauts “spam in a can”. They had worked incredibly hard throughout their career to reach the top, the pinnacle of aviation. There was no incentive to trade in, their plane for a capsule, the title of pilot for astronaut, nor did they want anything to do with all the doctors, wires, rectal thermometers, and medical experiments involved in the process.
Yeager would go on to command the USAF Research Pilot School and train future astronauts. In 1966 he was put in charge of the 405 Tactical Fighter Wing where he would fly 127 combat missions (over 400 hours) over Vietnam. Three years later he was promoted to Brigadier General and appointed vice-commander of the 17th Air Force. After retiring from the Air Force in 1971, Chuck Yeager went on to set multiple general aviation records for speed, range, and endurance.
Yeager’s many honors include, among others, induction to the National Aviation Hall of Fame, Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Collier Trophy. Yeager is 92 and resides in Penn Valley, California.
Note: The above material on Chuck Yeager was taken largely from: “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe, Wikipedia and Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum archives.