West Virginia Native And Hero Aviator Chuck Yeager Dies at 97
Gen. Charles “Chuck” Yeager, a West Virginia native and the first pilot to break the sound barrier, has died at the age of 97.
His wife, Victoria Yeager, made the announcement of his passing via Twitter Monday night, posting: “It is w/ profound sorrow, I must tell you that my life love General Chuck Yeager passed just before 9pm ET. An incredible life well lived, America’s greatest Pilot, & a legacy of strength, adventure, & patriotism will be remembered forever.”
Yeager grew up in Lincoln County, West Virginia, and enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1941. Originally assigned as an airplane mechanic, he said he got sick the first time he flew in a plane.
"After puking all over myself I said, 'Yeager, you made a big mistake,'" noted the Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine, quoting the famed test pilot about his first time in the air.
But it wasn’t long before Yeager began proving himself as a skilled pilot.
During the war, Yeager flew missions across Europe and was credited with downing German planes along the Western Front. While flying over France in March 1944, he was shot down.
Following the war, he remained in the Air Force and was stationed at Muroc Army Air Field in Southern California, which is now known as Edwards Air Force Base.
It was on Oct. 14, 1947 that he took part in a flight that fully etched him into history. On that day, Yeager manned the cockpit of a Bell X-1 and ascended 43,000 feet above the Mojave Desert and broke the sound barrier. The aircraft reached speeds in excess of 700 miles per hour.
At the time, many had feared that an airplane would break apart if it had reached such speeds.
“After all the anticipation to achieve this moment, it really was a letdown,” he wrote in his 1985 best-selling eponymous memoir. “There should’ve been a bump in the road, something to let you know that you had just punched a nice, clean hole through the sonic barrier.”
He retired as an Air Force brigadier general in 1975, although in an honorary gesture, he was promoted to the rank of major general in 2005.
Famed “new” journalist and author Tom Wolfe chronicled the test flight crews who worked on the military research project aiming to reach speeds that had never before been recorded.
Wolfe’s 1979 book, The Right Stuff, featured Yeager and the other pilots who had taken part in the mission. The story was later adapted into a 1983 film of the same name, in which Sam Shepard portrayed Yeager.
In 1985, President Ronald Reagan awarded Yeager the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. The same year, the airport in West Virginia's capital city of Charleston was named after the general.
News of his death drew quick statements from both of West Virginia’s U.S. senators, Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Shelley Moore Capito.
“General Chuck Yeager was an American hero. West Virginia’s native son was larger than life and an inspiration for generations of Americans,” Manchin said in a statement issued late Monday night. “He bravely served our nation as a pilot for more than 30 years in the U.S. Air Force during World War II and Vietnam. When he became the first pilot to break the sound barrier he challenged each of us to test the limits of what’s possible.”
Capito took to Twitter to honor Yeager.
“Tonight #WV’s own Chuck Yeager slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the face of God. What an amazing life. Praying for the Yeager family,” she said, quoting the tweet announcing of the pilot’s death.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice also lauded Yeager via Twitter.
“Cathy and I send our heartfelt condolences and prayers to you and your family. Gen. Yeager was an American hero and a true West Virginia legend who broke barriers and changed history forever. West Virginians everywhere share in your grief.”