Charles Elwood was born in Myra, West Virginia on February 13, 1923 to farming parents, Albert Hal and Susie Mae. Most of his childhood and teenage years were spent in the town of Hamlin. He attended the Citizens Military Training Camp at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis, Indiana during the summers of 1939 and 1940, and graduated from Hamlin High School in June 1941.
Charles enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) on September 12, 1941, and became an aircraft mechanic at George Air Force Base in Victorville, California. At his enlistment, he was not eligible for flight training because of his age and educational background, but the entry of the U.S. into World War II less than three months later prompted the USAAF to alter its recruiting standards. Charles showed natural talent and high promise as a pilot and was accepted for flight training.
He received his wings and a promotion to flight officer at Luke Field, Arizona, where he graduated in March 1943. Assigned to the 357th Fighter Group at Tonopah, Nevada, he initially trained as a fighter pilot, flying Bell P-39 Airacobras and shipped overseas with the group in November 1943.
Charles was stationed in the United Kingdom (UK), flying P-51 Mustangs in combat with the 363rd Fighter Squadron. He named his aircraft Glamorous Glen after his girlfriend, Glennis Faye Dickhouse, who became his wife in February 1945. He was shot down over France in March 1944 during his eighth mission. He escaped to Spain with the help of the French Resistance and returned to England in May 1944. He was awarded the Bronze Star for helping another airman escape who had lost part of his leg during the escape attempt.
Charles was commissioned a second lieutenant while in the UK, and was promoted to captain before the end of his tour. He flew his 61st and final combat mission on January 15, 1945, and returned to the United States in early February. His high number of flight hours and maintenance experience qualified him to become a functional test pilot of repaired aircraft.
Charles remained in the Air Force after the war, becoming a test pilot at Muroc Army Air Field (now Edwards Air Force Base), following graduation from Air Materiel Command Flight Performance School. The USAF needed someone to fly the rocket-powered Bell XS-1 in a Nation Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) program to provide aerospace companies with better information on high-speed flight in order to improve aircraft design. It was hoped that the X-1 would answer questions about compressability and control problems, powerplant issues and the effects of higher Mach numbers. At that time, no one knew for sure whether an airplane could exceed “Mach 1,” the speed of sound. A British pilot, Geoffrey de Havilland, had died trying. The USAAF selected Charles for the flight. Because no jet engine at that time was powerful enough, the Bell X-1 used a four-chamber XLR-11 rocket engine that produced 6,000 lbs of static thrust.
Two nights before the scheduled date for the flight, Charles broke two ribs when he fell from a horse. To avoid cancellation of the flight, he went to a civilian doctor who taped his ribs. Charles told only his wife and friend and fellow project pilot, Jack Ridley. On the day of the flight, he was in such pain that he could not seal the X-1’s hatch by himself. Ridley made a special device which allowed Charles to seal the hatch.
Seventy years ago this week, October 14, 1947, Charles descended into the X-1 (he named Glamorous Glennis) positioned in the bomb bay of a Boeing B-29. At an altitude of 23,000 feet over the Mojave Desert, the X-1 was released and dropped 500 feet while he struggled to bring it under control. He began firing the rocket engines, climbing to 43,000 feet and flying at Mach 1.06 (700 mph) for 18 seconds. As he later described, “I was so high and so remote, and the airplane was so very quiet that I might have been motionless.” The sonic boom heard below confirmed that Charles Elwood (Chuck) Yeager had indeed punched through the sound barrier.
In 1948, Chuck was awarded the MacKay and Collier Trophies for this phenomenal flight. He went on to train military pilots, many of whom became astronauts. He also received other awards for breaking speed and altitude records and he served in various command posts until his retirement from the Air Force in 1975. In 1973 he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, and in 1985 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His fame and notoriety were boosted by his portrayal in the 1979 book The Right Stuff and its 1983 film adaptation. The X-1 he flew that historic day in 1947 was put on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in 1950.
On October 14, 1997, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his breaking the sound barrier, Chuck took to the skies to push past Mach 1 once again. In 2012, at age 89, he did it again to mark the 65th anniversary of that historic date.
When ask if he was ever afraid, Chuck replied, “What good does it do to be afraid? It doesn’t help anything. You better try and figure out what’s happening and correct it.” When ask if he thought any of his feats were heroic? “A lot of it was just being in the right place at the right time.” Of course, having the “Right Stuff” may have also helped!
Chuck’s wife Glennis passed away from cancer in 1990. Today, he lives in Penn Valley, California with his second wife, Victoria.