Chuck Yeager has just about done it all in the field of aviation. Born in 1923 in West Virginia, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps at the age of 18. Initially an airplane mechanic, he was accepted into a flying training program just months into World War II. He reported to the 363d Fighter Squadron in Tonopah, Nevada, as a flight officer and trained in the Bell P-39 Aerocobra. His unit deployed to Leiston, England, in early 1944, and flew North American P-51 Mustangs. Yeager scored his first aerial victory, against a Messerschmitt Me 109, on only his seventh mission. The very next mission, his own plane was shot down in a fight with a Focke Wulf Fw 190.
Aided by the French Resistance, Yeager avoided capture, walking over the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. Two months later he returned to his unit, sun tanned and a little heavier. Having worked with the underground, Yeager was certain to be shipped back to the States. Loving combat flying and naturally competitive, however, he personally convinced General Eisenhower to let him stay in England. He went home a commissioned officer with 64 combat missions and officially credited with 13 aerial victories, including 5 in one day. He was assigned to Wright Field, Ohio, in maintenance, but Yeager was a born test pilot. After about 2 years, Colonel Albert Boyd personally picked him to fly the country's most secret aircraft, the Bell X(S)-1.
On 14 October 1947, Yeager became the first man to break Mach 1, the supposed sound barrier. At first his deed was classified "top secret," but the shy young ace from West Virginia was later awarded the MacKay Trophy, the Collier Trophy and the Harmon International Trophy. In 6 years as a test pilot in the California desert, Yeager flew everything there was to fly, averaging 3 flights per day and 100 flying hours per month. After a near fatal flight in the X-1A, in which he set another speed record exceeding Mach 2.5, Yeager left testing to fly the North American F-86 Sabre and command the 417th Fighter Squadron at Hahn AB, Germany. He later commanded the 1st Fighter Squadron and flew the North American F-100 Super Sabre at George AFB, California.
After Air War College at Maxwell AFB, Alabama, he was made Commandant of the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilots School at Edwards AFB, California. He left Edwards to command the 405th Fighter Wing in the Philippines. He flew 127 combat missions over Southeast Asia, in the Martin B-57 Canberra, the North American F-100 Super Sabre, the Convair F-102 Delta Dagger, and the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II. Later, as Wing Commander at Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina, Yeager received a star. He served as the Vice Commander of Seventeenth Air Force and the US Defense Representative to Pakistan during the Pakistan-Indian War. He retired in 1975 as the Air Force Safety Director at Norton AFB, California.
Yeager was the first active duty military member to be inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. Additionally, he received a special peacetime Medal of Honor for his contributions to aviation research. Since retiring, he remains active, doing everything from flying "young eagles" at airshows to consulting on a wide range of projects at Edwards AFB.
While testing the rocket-boosted Lockheed NF-104 Starfighter, to establish operational parameters for students in the test pilot school, Yeager climbed to 104,000 feet. The aircraft suddenly went into a spin and, after 13 turns, he ejected! Wearing a full pressure suit, he had self-contained oxygen, but when a red-hot socket tube from the seat hit his helmet, Yeager had a face full of fire. He hit the ground hard! After a month in the hospital with first, second, and third degree burns, an almost perfectly restored Yeager returned to his love--flying!