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The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA)

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    Pioneer Profile

    Chuck Yeager (1923 - Present)

    Chuck-YeagerBorn 13 February 1923

    Photo courtesy of the Air Force Test Center History Office.

    Charles Elwood Yeager was born in Myra, West Virginia. After high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force in 1941 and served as a flight officer in World War II (1939-1945). In 1943, he became a pilot in the fighter command of the Eighth Air Force stationed in England. He flew 64 missions over Europe and shot down 13 German aircraft. Yeager's courage was put to the test when his own plane was shot down during a mission over Germany. But, with help from the French underground, he escaped capture and returned to his unit. After the war, he became a flight instructor and a test pilot, serving as a captain in 1947.

    Yeager was chosen from several volunteers to test-fly the secret, experimental X-1 aircraft, built by the Bell Aircraft Company. The Bell X-1 was designed to test human pilots and fixed wing aircraft against the severe stresses of flight close to the speed of sound, and to see if a straight-wing plane could fly faster than the speed of sound (approximately 760 mph, in air at sea level). No one knew if a pilot could safely control a plane under the effects of the shock waves produced as the plane's speed neared Mach 1.

    On October 14, 1947, over dry Rogers Lake in California, Yeager rode the X-1, attached to the belly of a B-29 bomber, to an altitude of 25,000 ft. After releasing from the B-29, he rocketed to an altitude of 40,000 ft. He became the first person to break the sound barrier, safely taking the X-1 to a speed of 662 mph, faster than the speed of sound at his altitude.

    Chuck Yeager and the X-1 research plane that broke the sound barrier. It can be seen today at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of the Air Force Test Center History Office.

    Yeager continued making test flights for the Air Force. On December 12, 1953, in an X-1A rocket plane, he set a world speed record of 1650 mph. In 1954, Yeager left his post as assistant chief of test-flight operations to join the staff of the Twelfth Air Force in West Germany.

    Yeager returned to Edwards in 1962 as a colonel to command the Aerospace Research Pilot School. During this time, Yeager trained to break the speed record again, this time in a NF-104 fighter-interceptor. But in a practice flight, his aircraft went into a spin and fell from an altitude of more than 100,000 ft. Yeager, badly burned, survived by ejecting and parachuting into the desert. That was his last attempt to break the speed record.

    In 1968, he took command of the Fourth Tactical Fighter Wing. Yeager later retired from the Air Force with the rank of brigadier general in 1975.

    Visit the United States Profile for more information on American pioneers.

    Provided to the AIAA for the sole purpose of its Evolution of Flight Campaign.

    Contributed by Kevin McCollam, AIAA Class of 2003 Ambassador.