The Spinning Starfighter of Southern California

Nothing else in recent history more dramatically shows the advancement of the human race better than the field of aviation. Over the course of time, man has been looking up and desiring to join the birds, bats, and bugs that flew above him. Yet it wasn’t until December 17, 1903 that the first powered flight of an aircraft that was heavier than air was made when the Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur, flew their famous invention, the Wright Flyer, for 12 seconds over roughly 120 feet of sand in what is now Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina (Kitty Hawk is the next door neighbor and was the closest developed area at that time which is why most history books have listed the flight as taking place in Kitty Hawk. Today it does not seem to be so much a matter of contention between Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills as it is one of confusion to vacationers in the Outer Banks.) This achievement marked the beginning of man’s ascent into the sky, as well as ensuring that two of the most famous individuals from my home state will forever be enshrined on the license plates and quarters of another. But as admirable as Orville and Wilbur are for having become the first airplane pilots in human history, many more would follow in their contrails (haha! I’m funny!) Today, I am going to tell you about the man who flew better than anyone no matter what plane he was in. A man who was a pioneer in the sky and a multiple record-breaker (and rule-breaker), and who is nothing short of the greatest pilot to ever live: Chuck Yeager.

Charles Elwood Yeager was born in Myra, West Virginia on February 13, 1923. He grew up as part of a farming family, and when he was 18 he enlisted in the United States Army Air Force (the precursor to the US Air Force). He wasn’t originally eligible to be trained as a pilot, but not long after he enlisted the United States became an active participant in World War II and standards kind of got thrown to the wind, thus also did Yeager. The young pilot was a natural and was soon in England flying a P-51 Mustang he named Glamorous Glennis (after his girlfriend) over Nazi-occupied territories. In 1941, Yeager was shot down over France and with the help of the French Resistance made his way back to England where he attempted to get back in the action. However, once more Yeager was blocked by military policy and was not permitted to rejoin the fighting because escaped pilots were not allowed to fly back over enemy territory. Along with Captain Fred Glover, a bomber pilot who had also returned to Allied forces after being shot down, Yeager met directly with General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Yeah, that Eisenhower. Good old Ike cleared everything up and gave them a hall pass to continue flying against the Nazis. Good call on his part considering Yeager went on to become an ace in a day, meaning he accounted for the downing of five enemy aircraft. He was so good he didn’t even need to shoot at two of them; one of the German pilots pulled an “Oh shit it’s Han Solo!” TIE fighter in the polar trench and crashed into a fellow pilot when Yeager started to come at him.  Hey, anyway you do the job, as long as you do it right, right? I doubt Yeager’s situation played out exactly like that film though, for if it had I would have grown up aspiring to be him and not Luke Skywalker.

After the war, Yeager remained in the military and spent time at a number of air bases (including Wright Field, now known as Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, in the Wright Brothers hometown of Dayton, Ohio), but nowhere did he have a more significant career than at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California. Known as Muroc Army Air Field when Yeager first arrived there, Edwards was and still is the chief testing site for the United States’ prototype aircraft. Yeager became a test pilot, one of the most dangerous occupations of all time, but he had the talent and calm coolness to not only handle but exceed the pressures of the job. Everyone who knew Yeager knew he was good, but the general consensus was that the best pilot at the time was Slick Goodwin, a private citizen who was justifiably good enough for the Bell Aircraft Corporation to request to fly their newest prototype in 1947. The post-war aviation boom was marked by the desire to fly a plane beyond Mach 1, meaning that the flight would be supersonic, meaning that the plane in that flight would be going faster than the speed of sound. Here’s how Mach works, and here is exceeding Mach 1 in action. Obviously now we know that traveling faster than sound is possible, but back in 1947 there were serious doubts. Some engineers felt it could never be done without the vehicle going that fast breaking apart. Nevertheless, Bell Aircraft constructed a plane called the Bell X-1 that they felt was up to the task. Now they needed to find a pilot up who was up to the task. They felt that pilot was Slick Goodwin, but he demanded $150,000 to fly beyond the speed of sound. Needless to say, they looked elsewhere. The next pilot they came to was the promising young Yeager, whose estimate was considerably lower than Goodwin’s; he was satisfied with his normal payment from the Army (which wasn’t much) and the chance to fly the plane. Where Goodwin was a might greedy, Yeager was eager. To him, the X-1 was another bucking bronco to tame. I say this not just as an analogy, but to highlight Yeager’s love of horse-riding (and all things fast and thrilling), a love that almost prevented him from making what would be the most remembered flight since the Wright Brothers set off in their Flyer. A mere two days before his scheduled flight in the X-1, Yeager fell off his horse and broke a couple of his ribs. Knowing he’d be pulled from the flight if his superiors knew about his accident, he confided in his friend and fellow test pilot, Jack Ridley. Ridley was also a flight engineer whose brilliance helped pave the way for aviation advancements over the course of his illustrious career. Ridley kept quiet and worked out a way for Yeager to close the hatch door of the X-1 by sawing off a piece of a broomstick to fit into the door handle. The device worked and Yeager was able to enclose himself in the cockpit for a few test flights that would go on to be historic.

The X-1 was basically a rocket with wings that was unable to take off on its own power, so it was strapped under a B-29 Superfortress and dropped once it was airborne. This is the part Yeager was needed to flip the rocket engines on and steer the plane straight ahead instead of into the ground. Approaching Mach 1 planes encounter significant buffeting (turbulence) as the aircraft strikes the pocket of air that can’t get out of the way of it. In order to reach supersonic speeds pilots have to push the envelope of air before them. And now you know where that phrase comes from. It was popularized in Tom Wolfe’s excellent book The Right Stuff, which might be my favorite nonfiction book (also up there is Richard Preston’s especially topical now more than ever The Hot Zone). As Yeager approached this point, he held the X-1 true, and on October 14, 1947 reached Mach 1.07 (about 1170km/h or 727mph) thereby breaking the sound barrier and making the first supersonic flight. This is why I mark every October 14 as “Mach 1 Day” in honor of Yeager’s flight, as well as the skydiving efforts of Felix Baumgartner (the guy from the Red Bull commercials) who on October 14, 2012 – exactly 60 years from the day Yeager broke the sound barrier – jumped from a balloon up in the stratosphere about 39 kilometers or 24 miles high (the happy old guy is Joe Kittinger, a badass in his own right who held the previous freefall record and a personal coach to Baumgartner for that skydive). On the way down he traveled Mach 1.25, faster than Yeager’s flight! becoming the first person to break the sound barrier with his body. Badass.

The Bell X-1 Yeager flew, like his wartime P-51, was named Glamorous Glennis after the woman who was by then his wife. It is now displayed in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C, the museum that I’ve yet to go to but want to visit more than any other.

It’s quite an impressive resume already, but Yeager’s achievements and milestones were far from over. While he wasn’t the first pilot to reach Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound), he was the main force in spoiling the glory for the man who was. In 1953, 50 years after the Wright Brothers signature first flight, the Navy planned to break past Mach 2 with their pilot, Scott Crossfield, the friendly rival of Chuck Yeager, flying in the Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket (some of these planes have such cool names). They succeeded, as Crossfield became the first to fly Mach 2 (2076km/h or 1290mph) on November 20, 1953. The Navy looked to have a big ceremony on December 17 of that year to link Crossfield’s flight with the Wright Brothers and proudly declare Crossfield the fastest pilot ever. Chuck Yeager and Jack Ridley had other plans. They set out to steal the thunder and then some, and just over three weeks after Crossfield’s flight they made their own in the X-1A, a more souped-up version of the plane Yeager broke the sound barrier in. On December 12, Yeager took that plane to Mach 2.44. 2.44! That’s fucking 2989km/h or 1857mph! In other words, it’s fucking fast! But that’s not even the most incredible part of the story. The reason Yeager didn’t go faster (which he certainly wanted to) was because he experienced inertia coupling, a phenomenon where the weight of the airplane overcomes the wings at high speed. The mass of many jet planes is too much for the smaller wings and tails to keep stable when the plane travels faster causing it to rotate on all three axes.  Basically, this means that at a certain speed the plane can spin out of control and go into a deadly roll that will cause it to fall out of the sky. This is associated with powerful g-forces that can knock even the best pilots unconscious. This actually happened to Yeager on his Mach 2.44 fuck you Crossfield flight, but he woke up and was able to steady the ship and land without crashing but not before he dropped 16,000m or 51,000 feet towards Earth in less than a minute. One of the many reasons why he is the Jimi Hendrix of airplane pilots.

Chuck Yeager did all this and so much more. He helped friend Jackie Cochran become the first woman to make a supersonic flight, flew many more prototypes and even a Soviet MiG brought over by a defector, and totally burned one of the most well-regarded pilots in the history of ever. Let me tell you a little more about it.

There are a couple of accounts of how the story goes, but they all are funny for Yeager. What is consistent with all versions is that Yeager was tasked with taking another pilot in the Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star and test out a dry lake bed on Edwards Air Force Base as an emergency landing site. The reason that Edwards was chosen as a testing grounds for prototypical aircraft is because it is essentially one massive dried up lake bed and in the event of an emergency pilots can ideally make a landing on the dry, flat ground instead of searching vainly for a stretch of tarmac amongst the mountains. According to Yeager, he declined the request as he knew that rainfall made the area in question too muddy for a landing, but the other pilot insisted on making the attempt. The other pilot was part of the next generation of hotshots, a new breed of Yeager who hailed from the same part of the country as the Wright Brothers, a promising aviator named Neil Armstrong. Yep, that Neil Armstrong. Before he made his “one small step” he made a trial landing with Chuck Yeager riding shotgun. Armstrong touched down onto the lake bed and the plane got stuck in the mud, just as Yeager claimed he had told their superiors it would. According to him something along the lines of the following dialogue was said: “Well Neil, in a few hours it’ll be dark, and the temperature’s going down to zero, and we’re two guys standing out here in the mud wearing windbreakers. Got any good ideas?” That line comes out of The Right Stuff and after I first read it I had to set it down and have a good laugh. It was Yeager’s way of saying “I told you so” and it was hilarious. As is to be expected, Armstrong tells a different story where Yeager doesn’t provide any prior warning but simply bursts into laughter when the wheels of the plane sink into the mud. No matter which is the truer account (because I’m sure the real story is different from either) both are amusing.

Everyone knows that Armstrong went on to become the first man to walk on the moon, but Yeager never applied to the developing space program that would become NASA, mainly because he didn’t have a college degree, a major qualification for any prospective astronaut. However, he did help NASA out by training astronauts as an instructor in Aerospace Research Pilots School (ARPS) to prepare astronaut candidates for the intense gravitational forces they’d encounter rocketing up from the Earth in a more realistic way than the simulator in Houston could provide. They way they’d do this was to load into a plane fitted with a special hydrogen peroxide rocket attachment on the back that when activated would throttle the aircraft up, up and away. Well, of course not out into outer space, but they could get pretty damn high up there. That extra bit of oomph propelled the plane known as the Lockheed NF-104A Starfighter (the plane in the title photo and the one with the coolest name yet) beyond the clouds to the dizzying theoretical height of 36,600 meters (120,000 feet). Yeager loved the plane and relished the opportunity to “wring it out” as Wolfe put it. In 1963, Yeager looked to kill two birds with one supersonic plane: he would test out its viability for the ARPS program, and he could break that damn altitude record the Ruskies held. Two years earlier, the Soviets set the then highest altitude record achieved by a plane that took off from the ground on its own power with the E-66A reaching the incredible height of 34,741 meters (113,980 feet). Yeager hopped into the Starfighter with aspirations to surpass this record, but he was wary of the atmosphere above 30,480 meters (100,000 feet) because the air is so thin aircraft are not able to maneuver as well as they can closer to Earth. Yeager was literally rocketing into unknown territory with the Starfighter. But who better to figure out how she handled so far up there?

Yeager gets the Starfighter up to around 108,000 feet, almost 33 kilometers (33,000 meters; 20.5 miles) above the Earth. Just a couple more kilometers and he’s got the record when… bam. The plane’s nose won’t go down and his thrusters give out. The ship begins to freefall. It goes into a spin and he tries vainly to break out of it. He falls like this for over 24 kilometers (24,000 meters; 14 miles). God damn. I cannot even begin to comprehend – even as I spin in my rotating office chair to attempt to replicate – how helplessly wild this must feel. Yet Yeager is the best goddamned pilot to ever grace the skies and he keeps his wits until he’s low enough to eject at around 2133 meters (7000 feet) above the ground. His seat hits him in the head and breaks off his helmet faceplate, exposing him to the burning pieces of his wrecked plane which melt part of his hand and face as he falls back to Earth. When he gets on the ground his right glove is fused to his skin and he needs to cut it out with a knife he got from a terrified adolescent who stopped and ran over from the nearby highway when he saw Yeager’s plane crash. Yeager knows his hand is a mess as he goes to work cutting it free from his glove, but he can’t see his face and doesn’t know how bad it all looks until the kid who gave him the knife starts puking beside him. When the rescue chopper picks him up, Yeager is standing, holding his rolled-up parachute and helmet, “right out of the manual, and staring at them quite levelly out of what is left of his face, as if they had an appointment and he was on time,” as Wolfe says in the book displaying that Yeager really has the right… something or other. Chuck Yeager retired as a brigadier general for the United States Air Force in 1975. He now lives in California at the age of 91.

Before you go, here’s one more taste of supersonic flight and the physics behind it. Thanks to Chuck Yeager. And thanks to you for reading! If you have an intelligent addition to this or any of my previous posts, go away! But if you have a dumb joke or just want to see your name on the interwebs for your own narcissistic purposes then leave a comment below! Want me to write about something in particular? Contact me at and I’ll get right on it! Really, I mean, I wrote a whole post based upon three random cards from Apples to Apples, so I’m pretty good about catering to whatever anyone wants me to talk about. If you’re interested in finding out more about Chuck Yeager you can read almost any number of books about the man, including his own autobiography. And I can highly recommend the book I quoted and paraphrased from a million times: The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, as well as the 1983 movie based off it. There are ultimately different messages from each, with the movie glorifying Yeager above the pilots who go on to become the first astronauts, but the scenes that show Yeager’s achievements and survivals over the years are incredibly well done and definitely worth a look (really the whole movie is great and should get more attention than it does). Soar back next week to find out which movies you should watch on Halloween!




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