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Chuck Yeager – the first person to break the sound barrier. And he did it with two broken ribs

Tijana Radeska
Chuck Yeager
Chuck Yeager

Chuck Yeager is a retired American test pilot who was the first person to break the sound barrier — the point where a speeding object (such as an airplane) passes the speed of sound.

Charles Yeager. Wikipedia/Public Domain

Charles Yeager.

Charles Elwood Yeager was born in 1923, in West Virginia. After he graduated from high school he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. It was at the time when the WWII began when he started his career as a pilot. He showed extordinary skilld as an aircraft mechanics and pilot and he soon became a P-51 fighter pilot.

P-51D-20NA, Glamorous Glen III, is the aircraft in which Yeager achieved most of his aerial victories. Wikipedia/Public Domain

P-51D-20NA, Glamorous Glen III, is the aircraft in which Yeager achieved most of his aerial victories.

Soon after he was assigned to the Eighth Air Force for combat operations in World War II  his P-51 Mustang was shot down over France, but Yeager evaded capture and escaped to Spain. Instead of going home, Yeager was willing to stay on the front and he got his request approved. So he stayed.

Brigadier General Charles Elwood Yeager. Wikipedia/Public Domain

Brigadier General Charles Elwood Yeager.

He was first commissioned a second lieutenant and later promoted to captain before going home. When he got back he had 61 mission and returned home. Since he was an evader, he could choose the assignments he was willing to do. He and his wife expected a child during this time, so he chose Wright Field to be close to his home in West Virginia.

His experience during the war and his skills got him the position of functional test pilot of repaired aircraft under the command of Colonel Albert Boyd, head of the Aeronautical Systems Flight Test Division.

Yeager in the Bell X-1 cockpit. Wikipedia/Public Domain

Yeager in the Bell X-1 cockpit.

Yeager remained in the Air Force after the war, becoming a test pilot at Muroc Army Air Field (now Edwards Air Force Base). After Bell Aircraft test pilot “Slick” Goodlin demanded $150,000 ($1.6 million in 2015 dollars) to break the sound “barrier,” the USAAF selected Yeager to fly the rocket-powered Bell XS-1 in an NACA program to research high-speed flight.

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Just two days before the Big Day he fell off a horse and broke two ribs. Not even doubting of compromising the mission for his health, he shared the bad news only with his wife and a local doctor who taped his injury. He also told about it to a friend and to his fellow project pilot and they remained the only people aware of his secret the day he got on the plane. He was in such pain that he couldn’t even seal the X-1’s hatch by himself. Ridley – his fellow pilot- rigged up a device, using the end of a broom handle as an extra lever, to allow Yeager to seal the hatch.

Yeager in front of the Bell X-1, which, as with all of the aircraft assigned to him, he named Glamorous Glennis (or some variation thereof), after his wife. Wikipedia/Public Domain

Yeager in front of the Bell X-1, which, as with all of the aircraft assigned to him, he named Glamorous Glennis (or some variation thereof), after his wife.

Despite his pain, he did reach a top speed of 700 mph at 43,000 feet on the 14th of October and became the first person to break the sound barrier. In 1948, he received the MacKay and Collier Trophies and in 1954, the Harmon International Trophy. The X-1 he flew that day is now part of the collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.

Special Congressional Silver Medal awarded to Yeager in 1976. Wikipedia/Public Domain

Special Congressional Silver Medal awarded to Yeager in 1976.

Further in his life, Yeager broke many other speed and altitude records, without his ribs broken. He was also one of the first American pilots to fly a MiG-15, after its pilot, No Kum-Sok, defected to South Korea.

Monument to Yeager at Edwards Air Force Base. By Akradecki Alan Radecki - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5772138

Monument to Yeager at Edwards Air Force Base.Photo Credit

Yeager is now retired from military test flying but is still passionate about his job. At the 65th anniversary of breaking the sound barrier, Yeager, without any doubt, did it again at the age of 89, riding in a McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle.