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First Mach flight propels Yeager, Air Force into history

Capt. Charles E. Yeager (shown standing next to the Air Force's Bell-built X-1 supersonic research aircraft) became the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound in level flight on October 14, 1947. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Capt. Charles E. Yeager (shown standing next to the Air Force's Bell-built X-1 supersonic research aircraft) became the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound in level flight on October 14, 1947. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Retired Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager pauses for a moment while autographing several posters at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. General Yeager became the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound in level flight on October 14, 1947. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Cassidy)

Retired Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager pauses for a moment while autographing several posters at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. General Yeager became the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound in level flight on October 14, 1947. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Cassidy)

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AFPN) -- It was just another test mission for Capt. Chuck Yeager.

Captain Yeager arrived at Muroc Air Force Base, Calif., the morning of Oct. 14, 1947, for what would be his ninth powered flight piloting the Bell X-1.

Each of the previous flights demonstrated incremental speed increases as the aircraft neared the theoretical threshold known as the sound barrier. No aircraft had ever flown faster than the speed of sound, and it certainly wasn't in the cards on that October morning. The goal of this test flight was to achieve Mach .97 -- almost 20 mph slower than sound wave velocity.

However, Captain Yeager exceeded the mission goal by accelerating the X-1 to Mach 1.06, which propelled him and the base into the history books

More than any other event in history, the Mach 1 flight made Edwards Air Force Base the premiere location for flight test, said Dr. James Young, Air Force Flight Test Center chief historian.

"Once the public became aware of (the Mach 1 flight), this place became synonymous with experimental flight research, and it has remained in that esteemed position ever since," he said.

The Bell X-1 was only one of many airframes Captain Yeager flew at Edwards.

"The X-1 was highly experimental and the first of a long series of airplanes where we have continued to explore the unknown and expand the frontiers of flight," Dr. Young said.

Expanding the frontiers of flight might have seemed unlikely for a man who came from humble beginnings.

Born Charles Elwood Yeager on Feb. 13, 1923, to farming parents in Myra, W.Va., Chuck Yeager was raised in the small town of Hamlin. Even today, the town only boasts a current population of 1,119.

"I never saw an airplane on the ground until I was 18 years old and enlisted in the Army Air Corps," Yeager recalled. "From then on, airplanes were just tools for accomplishing missions."

Less than a year after his 1941 enlistment, he embraced the idea of flying and entered flight training through the Flying Sergeants program. After earning his wings, he flew as a combat pilot over France and Germany and was credited with 13 kills by the end of World War II, five of which were on a single mission.

Following his combat tour in 1945, the Army Air Corps moved Yeager to the world of flight test at Wright Field, Ohio, with frequent trips to Muroc Field in California.

Once the Air Force was established in September 1947, it didn't take long for the newborn service to make its mark on the world. Yeager's historic flight occurred only 26 days into the Air Force's existence.

It was the Air Force's first major accomplishment to gain worldwide attention, but Yeager wasn't fazed by the celebrity status it brought.

"I really never paid any attention to it," he said. "The X-1 program was one of 10 different programs on which I was working at the time, and they all had meaning."

Yeager spent four years traveling back and forth to California from Ohio before getting permanently assigned to the newly-named Edwards Air Force Base in 1949. Continuing to break speed records, Yeager remained at Edwards until 1954.

Throughout the next 21 years, Yeager commanded several fighter squadrons, returned to Edwards as commandant of what is now known as the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School, commanded two fighter wings, flew 127 missions in support of the Vietnam War, served as the 17th Air Force vice commander, and led the Air Force Inspection and Safety Center.

He received many medals and awards including three Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Silver Stars, a Bronze Star with Valor, 11 Air Medals and the Purple Heart.

Yeager retired from the Air Force as a brigadier general on March 1, 1975, having never earned a college degree. Today, a college degree is required for an Air Force commission.

In the years since retirement, General Yeager continues to work with Edwards Air Force Base and the flight test community.

Most recently, the general participated in a National Public Radio panel discussion and helped Edwards celebrate the Air Force's 60th anniversary at the base's Air Force Ball on Sept. 21. In December, he is scheduled to speak at the Test Pilot School graduation ceremony.

At 84 years old, the general isn't showing any signs of slowing down.

General Yeager said he still finds time to fly. He spends more than 180 hours per year at the controls of jets and propeller-driven airplanes alike.

During the Air Force Ball, the general flew an F-16 Fighting Falcon over the base producing a sonic boom in recognition of the 60th anniversary of the Air Force and his Mach 1 flight.

As the Air Force heads into its next 60 years, General Yeager sees further advances on the horizon for the service.

"Remotely piloted vehicles and high technology will make airplanes much more effective and will require fewer and fewer pilots," he said.

It's a vision that might have been difficult to imagine as a teenager in 1940, but for General Yeager today, it is a near certainty. 

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