America has lost one of its great daredevils of the sky. Chuck Yeager, the Air Force test pilot who made history by being the first person to break the sound barrier, died on Monday evening. 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, his wife, posted to his official Twitter account on Monday night. “An incredible life well lived, America’s greatest Pilot, & a legacy of strength, adventure, & patriotism will be remembered forever.”
Originally from small-town West Virginia, Yeager was a fighter pilot in World War II before becoming a key figure in the space race that followed. His prominence in American culture only grew with the publication of author and journalist Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book, The Right Stuff, which detailed the stories of the astronauts selected for NASA’s first manned spaceflight program, Project Mercury, as well as Yeager, who was not an astronaut but was lauded for his skills as a pilot. A 1983 film of the same name returned Yeager to the national spotlight.
Yeager’s seminal moment arrived on Oct. 14, 1947, when he climbed into the cockpit of a Bell X-1 rocket plane and flew it 1,062 km per hour, becoming the first person to break the sound barrier. He was just 24 years old. Prior to his flight, many worried that breaking the sound barrier would destroy an aircraft.
In a 1968 interview, according to the Associated Press, Yeager said he was merely “apprehensive” about the historic flight. “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,” he said.
Yeager later named the Bell X-1 “Glamorous Glennis,” after his first wife who died in 1990.
A retired Air Force brigadier general, Yeager had a distinguished military career, having shot down 16 planes over 64 missions in WWII. Yeager later returned to combat to fight in the Vietnam war, during which he flew 127 missions, according to the New York Times. He later led aerospace safety at the Air Force. All told, Yeager said in a 2009 interview with Men’s Journal, “I’ve flown 341 types of military planes in every country in the world and logged about 18,000 hours.” President Ronald Reagan awarded Yeager the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985, and he remained a venerated figure through his passing this week.
In a statement issued on Monday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine called Yeager’s death “a tremendous loss to our nation.”
“Chuck’s bravery and accomplishments are a testament to the enduring strength that made him a true American original, and NASA’s Aeronautics work owes much to his brilliant contributions to aerospace science,” Bridenstine said. “As a young naval aviator, I was one of many around the world who looked up to Chuck Yeager and his amazing feats as a test pilot. His path blazed a trail for anyone who wanted to push the limits of human potential, and his achievements will guide us for generations to come.”