U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- The first person ever to travel faster than the speed of sound didn't know anything about airplanes when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in September 1941.
But retired Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager did have a knack for fixing machines and a willingness to do whatever his duty required of him and to take advantage of any opportunity that presented itself, which is how he ended up behind the controls of the X-1 experimental aircraft when it made its first supersonic flight just six years later.
Yeager spoke about his flying career during a National Character and Leadership Symposium presentation Feb. 22 in the Arnold Hall Theater.
"I've never seen so many people in my life," he said to applause and laughter.
FROM MECHANIC TO ACE
Yeager didn't see an airplane on the ground until he was 15, but it didn't take him long to figure them out.
"As luck would have it, I was a natural mechanic. My dad was a natural gas driller, and I worked with him on the drilling machine, so I understood machinery," he said. "So the Air Corps used me as a mechanic."
It also didn't take him long to figure out he wanted to do more than fix airplanes: He wanted to fly them, too.
"When I used to work on the airplanes, my fingernails were greasy, and these pilots would walk by with nice, clean hands and gloves," he said. "That seemed like a good deal to me."
Yeager entered enlisted pilot training and graduated as a flight officer, equivalent to an Army warrant officer. He was assigned to fly P-51 Mustangs with the 363rd Fighter Squadron in England.
"On my first mission, I shot down a (Messerschmitt) 109. It was a good experience," he said.
He was shot down on a later mission but evaded capture with help from the French resistance, who smuggled him over the Pyrenees Mountains and into Spain. From there, he traveled south to British-controlled Gibraltar.
The Army Air Corps returned Yeager to flight, but because he was an evader, regulations prohibited him from re-entering combat. Only Army Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander, could grant him an exception.
In the meantime, he returned to the 363rd to train junior pilots. And while he was officially prohibited from engaging in combat, his guns were hot the day he and his students received an order to provide cover for a crashed B-17 Flying Fortress.
"The operations officer called me on the radio and said, 'How much fuel you got?'" Yeager recalled. "I said, 'Five or six hours,' because in a Mustang you can fly forever. He said, 'You got hot guns?' Yes, I got hot guns. 'Well, go over to this frequency and get with the British air rescue boat; there's a B-17 down in the North Sea off Helgoland.'"
Yaeger spotted a German Junkers Ju-88 heavy fighter approaching the rescue crew. Yeager turned ahead and fell in behind the larger aircraft.
"The tail gunner was shooting at me. I killed him, and then I blew up the airplane," Yeager said. "I came back and talked to the ops officer ... I said, 'Major, I shot down an airplane.'"
The operations officer wasn't happy to hear this, Yeager said.
"He said, 'Go ahead and fill out an encounter report, and put Eddie Simpson ... as the pilot," Yeager said. About a week later, he heard back from Eisenhower that he was clear to return to combat.
BEATING THE BARRIER
Yeager had his choice of assignments in the U.S. after World War II because he had been shot down.
"The nearest base to my home in West Virginia was Wright Field (Ohio), so I chose Wright Field," he said. "They had an opening for a maintenance officer in the Flight Test Center, so I got assigned there."
The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics -- what would later become the National Aeronautics and Space Administration -- conducted all the research flights out of Wright Field. NACA engineers were researching whether the sound barrier could be broken, and NACA test pilot Chalmers Goodlin had flown roughly 20 flights at speeds up to Mach 0.8.
Goodlin wanted $150,000 -- equivalent to about $1.6 million today -- to take the X-1 over Mach 1. Maj. Gen. Albert Boyd, chief of Air Materiel Command's Flight Test Division, wasn't having it.
"He said, 'This is ridiculous. ... We've got guys who are a hell of a lot better than these NACA weenies,'" Yeager said. "They (the Air Force) took the plane away from NACA and decided to run the tests at Wright Field, and I was selected to fly the airplane."
Yeager and the Air Force crew started testing the X-1 at Mach 0.8 and gradually increased the aircraft's speed through future flights. Along the way, they had to alter the X-1 to account for a loss of elevator control at Mach 0.88.
"What happens is that the shockwave, which forms on the thickest part of the horizontal stabilizer ... will move back from the thickest point. When it gets back to the elevator, then the elevator loses its effectiveness," he said. The engineers tied the vertical stabilizer into a movable horizontal stabilizer, eliminating the control loss.
Another challenge presented itself before the first supersonic flight when Yeager broke two ribs while horseback riding with his wife at the time, Glennis, in whose honor Yeager had christened the X-1 "Glamorous Glennis."
"Some idiot had closed the gate. I didn't see it," he said. "Me and that horse went right through that gate." But rather than report to the flight surgeon, whom Yeager knew would pull him off the flight, he went to a veterinarian in the local area.
"He said, 'Yup, you got two broken ribs,'" Yeager said. "He gave me something for it and said, 'Don't do anything strenuous.'"
Two days later, as he prepared to enter the X-1 for the fated flight, he asked for help from another pilot, Jack Ridley, to close the plane's door. The two improvised: Ridley gave Yeager a broom handle so that he could seal the door with his left arm instead of his right.
THE RIGHT STUFF
Yeager -- aided by his current wife, Victoria, whom Yeager married after Glennis died in 1990 -- fielded a handful of audience questions, including one that evoked a surprised reaction from those in the theater: What was his opinion on remotely piloted aircraft?
"I hate bleeding as much as you do," he said. "If I can fight a war without bleeding, I damn well will. That's progress. You started out with propeller airplanes and went to jets ... that's just progress. As long as I can fight a war without bleeding, well, I'll take that."
In response to another question, Yeager named Gen. Jimmy Doolittle as his role model.
"I flew with him a little bit, and I hunted with him a lot," he said. "When General Doolittle came to Europe ... (fighter escorts) would fly alongside the bombers, and they'd look at you and be happy, and in the meantime, someone's shooting your tail off. Well, General Doolittle came over there and said, 'You guys ... get your planes out there in front of the bombers and shoot the Germans down. That's your job.' He changed the whole system."
Yeager said his favorite aircraft is "the one that kills the best," though his favorite modern-day aircraft is the F-15 Eagle.
"Of course, you've got to take what they give you," he added.
Yeager would go on to become commandant of the Aerospace Research Pilot School, where he would train 26 U.S. astronauts despite being ineligible to become an astronaut himself. He also commanded the 405th Fighter Wing at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines and the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing at Seymour-Johnson AFB, N.C.
He served as vice commander of 17th Air Force at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and directed the Air Force Inspection and Safety Center at Norton AFB, Calif., before retiring in March 1975. But he stayed involved with the Air Force test pilot program even after retiring.
"Edwards (AFB, Calif.) signed me up as a consultant test pilot for a dollar a year," he said. "The only question was, would I have to buy the fuel? I'm still flying when the weather's good."
The venerable pilot said he's grateful to the Air Force for the opportunities it's given him.
"I started out as an 18-year-old kid," he said. "What I am, I owe it to the Air Force, because they put me where I could perform, and I've enjoyed it immensely."