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Chuck Yeager is unquestionably the most famous test pilot of all time. He won a permanent place in the history of aviation as the first pilot ever to fly faster than the speed of sound, but that is only one of the remarkable feats this pilot performed in service to his country.
Charles Elwood Yeager was born in 1923 in Myra, West Virginia and grew up in the nearby village of Hamlin. Immediately upon graduation from High School he enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps to serve in World War II.
Shot down over enemy territory only one day after his first kill in 1943, Yeager evaded capture, and with the aid of the French resistance, made his way across the Pyrenees to neutral Spain. Although army policy prohibited his return to combat flight, Yeager personally appealed to General Dwight D. Eisenhower and was allowed to fly combat missions again.
He flew 64 combat missions in World War II. On one occasion he shot down a German jet from a prop plane. By war's end he had downed 13 enemy aircraft, five in a single day.
After the war, Yeager continued to serve the newly constituted United States Air Force as a flight instructor and test pilot. In 1947, he was assigned to test the rocket-powered X-1 fighter plane. At the time, no one knew if a fixed-wing aircraft could fly faster than sound, or if a human pilot could survive the experience. Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier on October 14, 1947, only days after cracking several ribs in a horseback riding accident.
In 1952, he set a new air speed record of 1650 mph, more than twice the speed of sound. He flew test flights in Korea, and commanded a fighter squadron in Europe.
After the onset of the space race in 1956, Yeager commanded the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilots School to train pilots for the space program. In this capacity, Yeager supervised development of the space simulator and the introduction of advanced computers to Air force pilots. Although Yeager himself was passed over for service in space, nearly half of the astronauts who served in the Gemini, Mercury and Apollo programs were graduates of Yeager's school.
In 1963, Yeager was flying the experimental Lockheed Starfighter at over twice the speed of sound when the engine shut off and he was forced to abandon the spinning aircraft. Yeager's compression suit was set on fire by the burning debris from the ejector seat, which became entangled in his parachute. He survived the fall, but required extensive skin grafts for his burns.
The Air Force space school was closed in 1966, as NASA took over the training of astronauts. During the Vietnam War, Yeager -- now a full colonel -- commanded the 405th fighter wing out of the Philippines, flying 127 air-support missions, and training bomber pilots.
In 1968, Yeager was promoted to brigadier general. He is one of a very few who have risen from enlisted man to general in the Air Force. In 1970, General Yeager served as U.S Defense Representative to Pakistan and supervised Pakistan's air defense in its war with India. He retired from the Air Force in 1975, but continued to serve as a consulting test pilot for many years.
In 1976, Chuck Yeager was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, presented to him by President Gerald Ford. President Ronald Reagan later honored him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. These are the highest honors the nation bestows for outstanding service or achievement. General Yeager's other decorations include the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star with V device, the Air Force Commendation medal, the Silver Star with oak leaf cluster, the Legion of Merit with oak leaf cluster, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross with two clusters, and the Air Medal with ten clusters. His civilian awards include the Harmon International Trophy (1954) and the Collier and Mackay trophies (1948). He was the first and the youngest military pilot to be inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame (1973).
A bestselling nonfiction book, The Right Stuff (1979) by Tom Wolfe, and the popular film of the same title (1983), made Yeager's name a household word among Americans too young to remember Yeager's exploits of the 1950s. Yeager's autobiography enjoyed phenomenal success and he remains much in demand on the lecture circuit and as a corporate spokesman. Chuck Yeager made his last flight as a military consultant on October 14, 1997, the 50th anniversary of his history-making flight in the X-1. He observed the occasion by once again breaking the sound barrier, this time in an F-15 fighter.
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