US Air Force celebrates 73 yearsLt. Gen. Michael Loh, director of the Air National Guard, joins in the celebration with members of the U.S. Air For
Last Dec. 7, the greatest aviator in American history ascended into the heavens. On Friday, joined by my family on Air Force Two, it will be my honor to accompany the widow and earthly remains of retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager, America’s pilot, on his last flight back to his beloved West Virginia.
Born in rural West Virginia in 1923, he grew up in humble circumstances. In late 1941, with only a high school diploma to his name and war at America’s doorstep, 18-year-old Charles Elwood Yeager enlisted in the Army Air Corps.
No one could have known then that the new enlistee would become a titan of American aviation. He threw up all over his airplane on his first few flights. But he completed his training, and in 1943 was deployed to fight the Nazis in Europe, where he flew 64 combat missions and shot down 13 German fighters.
CHUCK YEAGER, THE FIRST MAN TO BREAK THE SOUND BARRIER, DEAD AT 97
In March 1944, the ace was shot down over German-occupied France, but made it to friendly territory and was sent back to England, where he was ordered back home. But the dutiful Yeager appealed the decision all the way up to the Supreme Commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“I’ve got people shooting themselves in the foot to go home. What is the matter with you?” Eisenhower said to the pilot.
“I haven’t done my job,” Yeager replied matter-of-factly.
Eisenhower relented. Yeager was allowed to keep fighting, and would go on to take part in the Allied invasion of France.
After the war, Yeager married and went to work as an aircraft maintenance officer. He always made sure to fly all the aircraft under his care to ensure they were in top condition. His diligence caught the attention of Col. Al Boyd, who in 1947 selected him to pilot the experimental Bell X-1 out of Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Before Oct. 14, 1947, pilots around the world took it for granted that the speed of sound couldn’t be breached. As they approached what became known as “Mach 1,” their equipment would often freeze-up and become unusable. Some aircraft even disintegrated. Numerous pilots lost their lives.
Engineers speculated that it was impossible for any aircraft to survive at such speeds, and it began to take on ominous names such as “the sonic wall” and “the sound barrier.”
But on that storied day in California’s Mojave Desert, Chuck Yeager broke that barrier, and became the first man to travel faster than the speed of sound. The impossible became possible. The “sound barrier” came down, and in its place a gateway was opened to a new era of innovation and exploration that would ultimately take mankind to the moon and beyond.
Yeager would go on to become our nation’s leading test pilot. As if flying faster than Mach 1 wasn’t enough, a few years later he surpassed Mach 2 as well. He was appointed the commandant of the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilots School, where he trained almost half the men who would one day become the astronauts in America’s space program and take Americans to the moon.
By the time he retired in 1975, Yeager had fought for our country in three wars, flown more than 12,000 hours in 361 different aircraft models, and received numerous military decorations and awards, including the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, the Air Force Commendation Medal, and the Purple Heart.
Throughout his life, many believed providence had simply given Yeager “the right stuff” for a life of accomplishment. He never thought so. Throughout his 97 years, he always maintained the same down-to-earth, humble and unassuming attitude he learned as a boy.
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Hard work and duty were his motto. When his statue was erected in front of his high school back home, he quipped that “there wasn’t a pigeon in town till they put up that statue.” And in the august halls of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the pioneering aviator had his own explanation for his remarkable accomplishments: “I was just a lucky kid who caught the right ride.”
Yeager will no doubt be most remembered for breaking the sound barrier. Where everyone saw an unbreakable barrier, a young man with just a high school diploma saw a gateway to an exciting new era in aviation. In that, he represents all that is quintessentially American: breaking down barriers, and in their place building gateways to opportunity, innovation and new frontiers.
As the father and father-in-law of two American airmen, I know how much Chuck Yeager meant to generations of American pilots and pioneers. His legacy will live on among the pilots of the United States Air Force, and now the Guardians of the new Space Force.
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So on Friday, as we join his widow Victoria on his last flight home, our prayers are with her and the entire Yeager family. We know the debt we owe Chuck Yeager as a nation will only be paid by remembering his example of heroism, selflessness, and expanding the boundaries of aviation.
Thanks to Brig. Gen. Charles “Chuck” Yeager, whatever barriers lie ahead, we know they are but gateways to even greater achievements in the skies and among the stars.