Chuck Yeager, perhaps the most well-known test pilot of all time who in 1947 became the first person ever to break the sound barrier, died Monday. He was 97.
The news was announced on Yeager’s official Twitter account via a statement from his wife, Victoria, on Monday night.
“It is w/ profound sorrow, I must tell you that my life love General Chuck Yeager passed just before 9pm ET. An incredible life well lived, America’s greatest Pilot, & a legacy of strength, adventure, & patriotism will be remembered forever,” the statement said.
Yeager’s achievements as a pilot were legendary even in his day. He entered the Army as an enlisted man in the summer of 1941 and first worked as a place mechanic. He was ineligible to become a pilot as he hadn’t gone to college, the military relaxed recruitment requirements after the attack on Pearl Harbor and Yeager was accepted for training.
Yeager’s service during the war read like something out of a movie. For example, in Feb. 1944 he was shot down over France and rescued by a French Resistance cell. After working with the group — which included bombmaking and helping other American service personnel escape from France — he made his way back to US military headquarters in England in May, then returned to active combat duty after the allied invasion on D-Day. He flew 61 missions during the war, and was confirmed to have downed 11 German aircraft.
After the war he attended the Air Force’s newly established advanced flight training school and became a test pilot stationed at what is now Edwards Air Force base. It was there that on October 14, 1947 Yeager flew an experimental jet aircraft at Mach 1. He went on to set dozens of other records, including being the first to reach Mach 2.4, continued to serve as a fighter pilot and commander, train astronauts, and lead squadrons. He eventually reached the rank of brigadier general, and retired from the Air Force in 1975 after 33 years.
Already famous, Yeager became a cultural icon thanks to Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book “The Right Stuff,” which tracks the creation and early successes and setbacks of the American space program. Wolfe consulted with Yeager while researching the book, and ultimately framed the story around Yeager’s generation of test pilots who emerged after World War II.
As depicted in the book and the 1984 film adaptation, the qualities these pilots had both in their plans and as people — the “right stuff” of the title — were as precisely what the organization that would eventually become NASA wanted in its astronauts. Unfortunately, they were mainly enlisted men who earned officer’s commissions, and subsequently were shut out of consideration when NASA declared that only college graduates would be considered. Yeager was played by Sam Shepard in the Oscar-winning 1984 film adaptation; the 2020 Disney+ TV series adaptation has been criticized for leaving Yeager out of the story entirely.
Yeager married his first wife, Glennis, in 1945. The couple had four children and remained together until her death in 1990. He met actress Victoria Scott D’Angelo (“Witness”) in 2000 and they married in 2003.