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Flying legend Chuck Yeager, test pilot and first [?] to break sound barrier, dies at 97

Chuck Yeager, a World War II fighter ace who was the first man to travel faster than sound and whose gutsy test pilot exploits were immortalized in the Hollywood blockbuster “The Right Stuff,” died Monday, his wife said. He was 97.

“It is w/ profound sorrow, I must tell you that my life love General Chuck Yeager passed just before 9pm ET,” Victoria Yeager tweeted on her husband’s account.

“An incredible life well lived, America’s greatest Pilot, & a legacy of strength, adventure, & patriotism will be remembered forever.”

She did not specify the cause of her husband’s death.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement that Yeager’s death was “a tremendous loss to our nation.”

“Gen. Yeager’s pioneering and innovative spirit advanced America’s abilities in the sky and set our nation’s dreams soaring into the jet age and the space age. He said, ‘You don’t concentrate on risks. You concentrate on results. No risk is too great to prevent the necessary job from getting done,’” Bridenstine said in his statement.

“In an age of media-made heroes, he is the real deal,” Edwards Air Force Base historian Jim Young said in August 2006 at the unveiling of a bronze statue of Yeager.

He was “the most righteous of all those with the right stuff,” said Maj. Gen. Curtis Bedke, commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards.

Yeager rocketed into history by breaking the sound barrier in the experimental Bell X-1 research aircraft in 1947, helping to pave the way for the US space program.

“Sure, I was apprehensive,” he said in 1968. “When you’re fooling around with something you don’t know much about, there has to be apprehension. But you don’t let that affect your job.”

The modest Yeager said in 1947 he could have gone even faster had the plane carried more fuel. He said the ride “was nice, just like riding fast in a car.”

In 2007 he said: “It opened up space, Star Wars, satellites.”

Charles Elwood Yeager was born on February 13, 1923 in the tiny town of Myra, West Virginia, and grew up fixing pickup trucks alongside his father.

“What really strikes me looking over all those years is how lucky I was, how lucky, for example, to have been born in 1923 and not 1963 so that I came of age just as aviation itself was entering the modern era,” Yeager said in a December 1985 speech at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

“I was just a lucky kid who caught the right ride,” he said.

Yeager joined the Army Air Corps in September 1941, three months before the United States entered World War II, and started out as an aircraft mechanic before undergoing flight training.

Based in England, Yeager began flying combat missions in a P-51 Mustang in February 1944 and downed a German Me 109.

Yeager was shot down behind enemy lines in March 1944 but was able to rejoin his unit in England with the help of the French resistance after a harrowing trek over the Pyrenees.

He resumed combat and was credited with 12.5 aerial victories by the war’s end, including downing five German Me 109s on a single day and four FW 190s on another.

Yeager booked his place in history as a test pilot when he broke the sound barrier in the rocket-powered Bell X-1 on October 14, 1947, earning him the title of “The Fastest Man Alive.”

After the X-1 was dropped from the belly of a B-29 bomber at 45,000 feet (13,700 meters), Yeager flew at supersonic Mach 1.06 (700 miles/1,130 kilometers per hour).

Yeager’s colleague Chalmers “Slick” Goodlin, another test pilot for Bell Laboratories, once famously described the X-1 as a “bullet with wings.”

It was, in fact, modeled after a .50-caliber bullet, with short wings and a pointed tip, allowing it to pierce the air more efficiently.

The aircraft, nicknamed “Glamorous Glennis” in honor of Yeager’s first wife, now hangs in the National Air and Space Museum in the nation’s capital.

Multiple records

Before his historic flight, Yeager said he received advice from Colonel Albert Boyd, who headed the Air Force’s supersonic flight program.

“Get above Mach 1 as soon as you can, don’t bust your butt, and don’t embarrass the Air Force,” Yeager said Boyd told him.

“I had done what the old man had sent us out to do,” the matter-of-fact Yeager said.

Yeager’s accomplishment was depicted in the iconic 1983 film “The Right Stuff” based on the book by Tom Wolfe.

Sam Shepard received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for his portrayal of Yeager in the movie about the Mercury program astronauts.

But when National Geographic and Disney+ adapted the same material for the small screen in 2020, Yeager was left out of the series.

Yeager would go on to set numerous other flight records, but most of his career was spent as a military commander directing US fighter squadrons throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

He retired from the US Air Force in 1975 as a brigadier general.

“I’ve flown 341 types of military planes in every country in the world and logged about 18,000 hours,” he said in an interview in the January 2009 issue of Men’s Journal. “It might sound funny, but I’ve never owned an airplane in my life. If you’re willing to bleed, Uncle Sam will give you all the planes you want.”

Yeager never forgot his roots and West Virginia named bridges, schools and Charleston’s airport after him.

“My beginnings back in West Virginia tell who I am to this day,” Yeager wrote. “My accomplishments as a test pilot tell more about luck, happenstance and a person’s destiny. But the guy who broke the sound barrier was the kid who swam the Mud River with a swiped watermelon or shot the head off a squirrel before going to school.”

Yeager was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star, the Air Medal and the Purple Heart. President Harry S. Truman awarded him the Collier air trophy in December 1948 for his breaking the sound barrier. He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985.

Yeager retired from the Air Force in 1975 and moved to a ranch in Cedar Ridge in Northern California where he continued working as a consultant to the Air Force and Northrop Corp. and became well known to younger generations as a television pitchman for automotive parts and heat pumps.

He married Glennis Dickhouse of Oroville, California, on Feb. 26, 1945. She died of ovarian cancer in December 1990. They had four children: Donald, Michael, Sharon and Susan.

Yeager married 45-year-old Victoria Scott D’Angelo in 2003.

Source: TOI


Hans Guido Mutke (25 March 1921 – 8 April 2004) was a fighter pilot for the German Luftwaffe during World War II. He was born in Neisse, Upper Silesia (now Nysa, Poland).

On 25 April 1945, Mutke landed at Dübendorf, Switzerland, flying the Me 262A-1a jet fighter, ‘White 3’, from 9. Staffel, Jagdgeschwader 7. He claimed that he got lost during a combat mission and landed there by mistake, although there were suspicions that he’d defected. The Swiss authorities never attempted to fly the plane, keeping it in storage and returning it to Germany on 30 August 1957. He sued the post-war German government, unsuccessfully, for the return of the plane, claiming it was his own property.

Hans Guido Mutke’s Me 262A-1a 500 071 on display at the Deutsches Museum

Mutke also made the controversial claim that he broke the sound barrier in 1945 in an Me 262, but mainstream opinion continues to regard Chuck Yeager as the first person to achieve this milestone in 1947 in a Bell X-1.

On 9 April 1945, Fähnrich Mutke, part of the Ergänzungs-Jagdgeschwader 2 (EJG 2) conversion squadron, 3rd flight, took off from Lagerlechfeld in his Messerschmitt Me 262, marked Weiße 9, for a planned high-altitude flight. He was climbing through at an altitude of 12,000 m (36,000 ft) in near perfect weather with a visibility of over 100 km, listening to the radio conversations, when his chief instructor Oberstleutnant Heinz Bär detected a P-51 Mustang approaching the plane of a comrade, Unteroffizier Achammer, from behind.

Mutke went into a steep 40° dive with full engine power. While passing through the altitude of 12,000 m, his Me 262 started to vibrate and began swinging from side to side. The airspeed indicator was stuck against its limit of 1,100 km/h (684 mph) (the maximum speed of the Me 262 is 870 km/h). The speed of sound is 1,062 km/h (660 mph) at an altitude of 12,000 m, depending on the environmental variables. The shaking intensified, and Mutke temporarily lost control of his plane. He reported that with the airspeed indicator still off the scale he attempted to recover from the uncontrollable dive by adjusting the main tailplane incidence angle. Rather than just having a hinged elevator, the Me 262 could change the angle of incidence of the whole tailplane, a design feature that was later added to the Bell X1. Suddenly, the buffeting stopped, and control resumed for a few seconds. Mutke throttled back and his engines flamed out, and after the short period of smooth flight, the buffeting resumed and the aircraft began shaking violently again. He fought to regain control and re-light the engines eventually reducing the speed below 500 km/h. After a difficult landing, it was found that his plane was missing many rivets and also had distorted wings.

At the time, Mutke did not understand the reasons for this strange behavior. Only after learning about the supersonic flights of Chuck Yeager in 1947 did he attribute these phenomena to the effects of supersonic flight and claim to have broken the sound barrier—years before Yeager did. This claim is disputed, and there are a number of other pilots and countries that claim the first supersonic flight. However, Mutke never claimed he was the first person to break the sound barrier, but instead argued that his flight was merely proof that the Me 262 was capable of reaching and exceeding Mach 1 and that therefore other German fighter pilots may have done so even before him.

In a series of carefully controlled flight tests conducted in World War II by Messerschmitt, it was established that the Me 262 went out of control in a dive at Mach 0.86, and that higher Mach numbers would lead to a nose-down trim that could not be counter-acted by the pilot by use of the control column. The resulting steepening of the dive would lead to even higher speeds and self-destruction of the airframe due to excessive negative G loads. Postwar testing by the British government corroborated Messerschmitt’s results, though neither actually exceeded Mach 0.86.

Mutke claimed to have overcome the ever steepening dive by adjustment of the 262’s tailplane incidence. This is the same technique employed by Chuck Yeager in the Bell X-1 to avoid what is known as Mach tuck. Furthermore, Mutke’s observation that he briefly regained control of the aircraft, while still accelerating, corresponds with later accounts of supersonic flight.

After the war, American test pilots filed reports about the Me 262, including the possibility of a speed of Mach 1. Compressibility in pitot tubes of the time often resulted in exaggerated speed readings near the speed of sound, particularly in German equipment, which was adversely affected by supply shortages as the war progressed. American Sabrejets and other high-speed aircraft (including the Bell X-1) also experienced anomalous airspeed readings in the high-subsonic flight regime (between 0.8 Mach and Mach 1). The Me 262’s pre-area rule fuselage would have additionally resulted in very high transonic drag, and its engines were already underpowered and temperamental to begin with. However, aircraft such as the Bell X-1, F-86 Sabre and Convair F2Y Sea Dart similarly did not have area ruled fuselages, yet are acknowledged to have flown at supersonic speeds — here the engine thrust, either alone or in combination with the pull of gravity during a dive, supplies enough force to accelerate the airplane to supersonic speed.

Due to the nature of Mutke’s combat flight, it is impossible to determine the exact speed of his plane, and it is also difficult to estimate the exact speed of sound at that temperature and altitude. Therefore, it is not possible to either prove or disprove his claims, and there is much discussion among experts as to whether the Me 262 was able to reach the speed of sound. It is believed that the damaging effects experienced by Mutke were a side effect of supersonic airstream and shock waves over different parts of the airframe, called buffeting. This effect occurs at speeds approaching Mach 1 but ceases above Mach 1. A number of other Me 262 experienced similar strange accidents, or breaking apart in the sky because of buffeting and the different aerodynamics at the sound barrier. Transonic buffeting effects had also been widely reported by pilots of propeller-driven Allied fighters including the Supermarine Spitfire, P-38 Lightning, P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang, aircraft that were known to have top diving speeds of less than 0.85 Mach (although one Spitfire was measured at 0.92 Mach). Allied fighter pilots reported seeing supersonic shock waves and popped rivets during dives as the high-speed air rushing over the wing exceeded Mach 1 even though the forward airspeed of the overall aircraft was well below that speed.

Many proponents of the claim also believe that after the end of the war the Allied powers had no interest in emphasizing any German achievements during the war. Mutke’s claim, however, is without controlled, experimental confirmation.

A computer-based performance analysis of the Me 262 carried out in 1999 at the Technische Universität München concluded that the Me 262 could indeed exceed Mach 1.