The most accomplished test pilot of all time, Chuck Yeager earned a permanent place in history when he became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound.
His aviation career got its start when, just out of high school, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps to serve in WWII. Entering combat in December 1942, he shot down his first enemy plane in March 1944. The next day he was shot down over enemy territory, but with help from the French resistance, escaped to Spain.
After a personal appeal to General Eisenhower, he returned to combat, flying 63 missions and downing 13 enemy aircraft, including the extraordinary feat of shooting down five in one day.
After the war, Yeager was assigned to test experimental airplanes at Muroc Army Air Field (now Edwards Air Force Base). It was here that his talent became legendary. Cool under pressure and with an innate knack for flying, he was selected as the pilot who would attempt to break the sound barrier. At the time, scientists believed it was impossible to exceed the speed of sound. On October 14, 1947, Yeager climbed into the rocket-powered Bell X1 – named Glamorous Glennis after his wife – and proved those experts wrong as the first sonic boom ever heard rocketed through the desert air.
In the following years, Yeager’s achievements continued to grow. Experimenting with in-flight refueling in 1958, he led the first flawless trans-Atlantic deployment of a jet fighter squadron. In 1962 he became commander of the new USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School, which prepared many of the first astronauts for space flight. During the Vietnam War, he commanded the 405th Fighter Wing, and in 1968 he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general, making him one of the very few people in Air Force history to rise from enlisted man to general. He retired in 1975, but continued to serve as a consulting test pilot.
Yeager’s decorations include the Congressional Silver Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Silver Star, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the Distinguished Flying Cross, among many others.