General Chuck Yeager standing in front of an F-16B just prior to a flight in 1992. (USAF photo)
General "Chuck" Yeager hardly needs an introduction. On October 14th, 1947, "The Fastest Man Alive" was the first to break the sound barrier in the famous Bell X-1. The rest of General Yeager's 60-year career is equally impressive: credited with 12.5 kills in WW II, legendary test pilot at Edwards, USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School commander, combat commander - General Yeager excelled in every domain. (An extended biography is included at the end of this article)
With 17,000 flying hours in 208 different types of military aircraft, it comes as no surprise that General Yeager also flew the F-16. He has about 100 hours in all blocks up to the block 52.
F-16.net: How did you become involved in the F-16 program?
General Yeager: Well, I've been involved in a lot of the development work in the aeroplane. I also worked on the Block 40C auto-terrain following system, infra red zoom systems. Basically a lot of the weapons management systems that were put in the F-16. I worked at Edwards AFB until about two and a half years ago.
F-16.net: What is your general impression with the F-16?
General Yeager: The F-16 was the first computer flight control system aeroplane. The F-16 doesn't have the capability of surviving down low like an F-15 or F-111 did. Basically if you look at what happened in Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom most F-16s were used at high altitude or for combat air patrol. It is basically a relatively easy aircraft to fly, but I would take an F-15E over an F-16 any day.
NVIS test patch. General Yeager was heavily involved in the Night Vision systems on the F-16. (Jon Somerville collection)
F-16.net: In your opinion, what were the most innovative features of the F-16?
General Yeager: I don't think the aeroplane had any. It doesn't have anything any other aeroplanes do better. Just like that there is a lot of propaganda on the F-16. Like they said they would lay the seat back so you could pull more G's without blacking out. The only reason they laid the seat back was it was too long to sit vertical in the cockpit. That was part of General Dynamics' propaganda. Basically an ejection seat handles anything except they came out saying it could pull more G's. That's not true, you have to keep your head up straight anyway.
And on the first F-16s, they had a strain gage on the side arm controller and it didn't move. It seemed that the newer pilot wanted a stick that moved so they knew where the controls were. Well, that is sort of a misconception on there part. But we went ahead and put a moveable side arm controller any way on the first production aeroplane.
Later model F-16s have a BIT which is the Built in Test system which makes the job of test flying easier.
F-16.net:Is the BIT a diagnostic system for the F-16?
General Yeager: No, its a system that allows a pilot to simulate complex flight controls.
F-16.net: Tell me about your early involvement in the fly-by-wire technology.
General Yeager: Well the first computer flight controlled systems were put in an F-106 (General may mean F-8) back in 1965 -1968. Then basically the digital computer flight control system was put in the F-16A which incidentally didn't have any all weather capability at all. It was a day fighter with a gun and sidewinders on the wingtips. Basically, they stayed in the analogue computer technology in the F-16 and it took about 53 different steps to check all the flight control systems on the aircraft up to the block 52 series. Then they went to digital which made very simple flight control systems to check out rather easily without being fragile.
F-16.net: Now what would you do in a typical F-16 flight?
General Yeager: I could write a book about it. You know your job: auto terraine following, Infra-red, weapons management systems and departure prevention system flights.
F-16.net: How would you improve the F-16?
General Yeager: You can't no. There have been weapons systems designed for it. But the problem is the F-16 is so small you can't carry internally all these systems needed to survive down low. So then you have to hang them on the outside, that slows the aeroplane up, and then it can't survive.
F-16.net: Do you still stop by at Edwards AFB?
General Yeager: I spent 60 years in Air Force cockpits. Now I still get to fly P-51s - I still fly in the Heritage flights and fly with the P-51s and T-33.
General Chuck Yeager in October 1997 at Edwards AFB for the 50th anniversary of the first man to break spead of sound. He is standing in front of the F-15 used to commemorate this. (USAF photo)
F-16.net: Tell me about the General Yeager Foundation?
General Yeager: Victoria [Yeager] formed it quite some time ago. We use it to support educational scholarships and the Young Eagles programs.
I was chairman of the Young Eagles program and we donated a lot of money to that. When I started as chairman (in 1996) our goal was to have a million kids fly an aeroplane before December 17th, 2003 which was 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers first flight. I flew the millionth one on December 17th, 2003. That was one of the highlights of our program.
F-16.net: Any new major goals planned?
General Yeager: That wasn't a lofty goal, you laid down a goal and go ahead and accomplish it. Nothing major planned, I don't plan ahead I just live day-to-day.
F-16.net: What would you tell young people wanting to join the military?
General Yeager: Hey, those who do it on their own are the best. I wouldn't tell them a damn thing. (laughs)
- General Chuck Yeager was interviewed over the phone by Jon Somerville on February 2nd, 2005 -
Born and raised in West Virginia, 18 year-old Chuck Yeager enlisted in the Army Air Corps in September 1941. He was serving as crew chief on an AT-11 when he was selected for pilot training under the flying sergeant program in July 1942. Although he experienced 'queasiness' the first couple of times he went up, he earned his pilot's wings on 10 March 1943. He joined the 363rd Fighter Squadron as a non-commissioned flight officer at the Tonopah Bombing and Gunnery Range, NV, later that month and commenced training in fighter tactics in the Bell P-39 Airacobra.
THE WAR YEARS Yeager entered combat in February 1944 in Europe and claimed one Me 109 before being shot down on his eighth combat mission on 5 March. With the help of the French underground, he evaded capture and resumed combat operations. He racked up a final total of 12.5 aerial victories, including five Me109s on 12 October and four FW 190s on 27 November. Of his 27 November experience, he recalled: "That day was a fighter pilot's dream. In the midst of a wild sky, I knew that dogfighting was what I was born to do." At the end of the war, Yeager had totaled 64 combat missions for 270 hours. The P-51B, -C and -D Mustangs he flew in combat were all named in honor of his fiancee, Glennis Faye Dickhouse, whom he married when he returned stateside in February 1945.
MACH BUSTER After a short stint as a flight instructor at Perrin Field, TX, Yeager was assigned as assistant maintenance officer in the Fighter Section of the Flight Test Division at Wright Field, OH. He was at the right place, at the right time. Wright Field was the center of Army Air Forces R&D and, since it was his job to check out all aircraft coming out of maintenance, he got to fly almost every fighter on the flight line. He demonstrated such exceptional skill that he was selected to fly in air shows and, in September 1945, he made his first trip to Muroc Army Air Field (now Edwards AFB) where he flew accelerated service trials on the new P-80A Shooting Star, America's first operational jet fighter.
In June 1947, Colonel Boyd, chief of the Flight Test Division, made one of the most important decisions of his career when he chose one of his most junior test pilots to make the attempt to become the first person to exceed the speed of sound in the rocket-powered Bell X-1. He chose Yeager because he considered him the best 'instinctive' pilot he had ever seen and he had demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to remain calm and focused in stressful situations. The X-1 program certainly promised to be stressful; many experts believed the so-called 'sound barrier' was impenetrable.
Famous photo of Chuck Yeager next to the X-1. (USAF photo)
On 14 Oct., Yeager dropped away from the B-29 in his X-1, fired all four chambers of his engine in rapid sequence and bolted away from the launch aircraft. The X-1 rapidly accelerated to 0.98 Mach and then, at 43,000 feet, the needle on his Machmeter jumped off the scale. Chuck Yeager had just crossed the invisible threshold to flight faster than the speed of sound. He attained a top speed of Mach 1.06 (700 mph). When Yeager's achievement was finally declassified in June of 1948, he was quickly accorded celebrity status. 'The Fastest Man Alive' he was awarded the most prestigious honors in aviation. The words accompanying the Collier Trophy aptly summarized the magnitude of his flight: 'This is an epochal achievement in the history of world aviation, the greatest since the first successful flight of the original Wright Brothers' airplane, forty-five years ago.'
TESTING THE LIMITS While his flights in the X-1 guaranteed celebrity, it was Yeager's performance over the next seven years that earned him pre-eminence within his own peer group, the experimental test pilots at Edwards. Yeager has called these years his 'golden age of flying and fun'. It was an age when the limits of time, space and the imagination were being dramatically expanded. And Edwards AFB was the place to be, the place where a whole stable of exotic research aircraft were probing the unknowns of flight and where new experimental prototypes appeared on the flight line in seemingly endless numbers.
Chuck Yeager became the test pilot of choice among engineers because he flew with such extraordinary precision that his data points were always right on target. He also demonstrated an unrivaled ability to quickly ferret out and understand an airplanes' flaws. Flying constantly at the edge of the envelope . . . and then beyond, at a time when accidents were far more common than they are today, Yeager repeatedly demonstrated an uncanny ability to coolly think his way through potentially catastrophic situations, take appropriate action, and bring his ship back.
In the fall of 1953 Yeager performed a complete evaluation of the first Russian MiG 15 to come into American hands. Yeager considered this 'the most demanding assignment' he had faced up to that point in time. Under an extremely tight schedule, in wretched weather, he had to wring out what he called a 'flying booby trap', an unforgiving craft, susceptible to unexpected pitch-ups, fatal spins, and a host of other problems.
SQUADRON LEADER In 1954, Yeager returned to operational flying as he took over command of the 417th Fighter Bomber Squadron. The squadron flew F-86H Sabres and transitioned from air defense to a tactical nuclear mission while under his command. Selected to lead the wing's team in all the European gunnery meets, Yeager typically won top individual honors in these events and ultimately led the team to victories in the U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) championships in 1955 and 1956.
Yeager may have arrived in Europe as a legendary test pilot but he has always considered himself, first and foremost, to be a fighter pilot and his dogfighting skills remained sharp. One of his squadron pilots recalled that, when he arrived, there was a helluva line of eager young pilots anxious to jump our new squadron commander and see what he was made of. Testing Yeager turned out to be a massacre. He waxed everybody, and with such ease it was shameful. The word got around that he was somebody very special.
Yeager returned to California's high desert when he took over command of the 1st Fighter Day Squadron at George AFB in 1957. Flying the new supersonic F-100 Super Sabres, the 1st was considered one of the Tactical Air Command's (TAC) elite units. TAC was then in the process of developing inflight refueling capabilities to support long-range deployments of fighter units. Such complex operations were still very problematic. Mission aborts, navigational mistakes, communications failures and tanker rendezvous miscalculations were common. In 1958, Yeager planned and led the first flawless trans-Atlantic deployment of a jet fighter squadron in TAC history, as all of the 1st's F-100s landed together and on schedule at Moron Air Base, Spain.
TO NEW HEIGHTS
Chuck Yeager in 1948. (USAF photo)
Now, a full colonel, Yeager returned to Edwards as deputy director of flight test in 1961. The following year he took over as commander of the new USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School (ARPS), where he presided over the development of a first-of-its-kind institution designed to prepare U.S. military test pilots for spaceflight. Although Yeager never got a chance to fly in space, in his role as mentor to a whole generation of spaceflight pioneers, he made an important contribution to its exploration. It remains one of his proudest achievements.
Combat has always been the ultimate flying experience for Chuck Yeager and he finally returned to it in 1966 when he took command of the 405th Fighter Wing. With his headquarters at Clark Air Base in the Philippines, Yeager commanded five squadrons and detachments scattered across Southeast Asia: two tactical bomber squadrons flying B-57s out of Clark and Phan Rang Air Base in South Vietnam; a squadron of F-100 fighter-bombers based in Taiwan; a pair of F-102 air defense squadrons flying out of Da Nang, South Vietnam; and detached units flying a variety of aircraft, including F-4s out of places like Da Nang and Udorn and Bankok, Thailand.
Yeager made an effort to visit and fly with each of these units once every 10-12 days. Flying primarily close air support and interdiction missions in a B-57, he added 127 flights and 414 hours to his combat record.
In March 1968, he took over command of the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing while it was deployed to Kunsan AB, Korea, in response to the Pueblo crisis (seizure of a U.S. military vessel by N. Korea). It remained in Korea through June 1968 when Yeager, once again, led it on a perfect redeployment back to its home base at Seymour Johnson AFB, NC. Under his command, the 4th achieved its first 'Outstanding Unit' citation... and the one-time enlisted crew chief was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General.
LAST ACTIVE DUTY FLIGHT In July 1969, Brigadier General Yeager returned to Europe as vice commander of the Seventeenth Air Force where he worked closely with the West Germans in organizing joint exercises and training. In January 1971, he moved into an entirely different type of assignment when he became U.S. Defense Representative to Pakistan at a time when tensions were high in that region of the world. He returned stateside in March of 1973 to take over as USAF Director of Aerospace Safety at Norton AFB, CA.
On 25 February 1975, he returned to Edwards AFB for his last official active duty flight in an F-4C Phantom II. When he climbed out of the cockpit that day, he had accumulated a total of 10,131.6 hours in some 180 types and models of military aircraft during an extraordinary flying career. Three days later, on 28 February 1975, General Jimmy Doolittle, Maj Gen Albert Boyd and Jackie Cochran were among the dignitaries in attendance as he completed his active duty service during ceremonies at Norton AFB.
LIVING IT UP Retirement from active duty means anything but retirement from active life. While he has long been an Air Force icon, the 1979 publication of Tom Wolfe's best-seller, The Right Stuff, vaulted Yeager into international celebrity... and the 1983 motion picture based on the book further solidified his hold on the public imagination. For the past quarter century, his advice has been much sought after by both the government and the aerospace industry on a wide variety of issues ranging from the development of new state-of-the-art aircraft systems to the safety of spaceflight operations. Perhaps, most remarkable of all, for more than two decades, he has retained the stamina, skill and mental acuity to fly and evaluate the most modern high-performance aircraft. He did much of his flying at Edwards where he remains an active consulting test pilot, serving in the words of one AFFTC commander as a 'wise, accurate and keenly observant advisor' to the Air Force Flight Test Center.
RETURN TO EDWARDS On 14 October 1997, General Yeager returned to Edwards to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his milestone flight in the Bell X-1. More than 55 years after he had commenced his flying career, he climbed into an F-15 Eagle with the name 'Glamorous Glennis' gracing its nose and reprised the flight profile that had taken him through the 'sound barrier'. His flight that morning was telecast live to a worldwide audience by CNN. Among the many offering congratulations was former President George Bush who captured the essence of the man and his achievements when he wrote: "If I was asked to choose one word that would define Chuck Yeager, it would be service. Fighter pilot, test pilot, combat commander you have always valued service to our country above all else . . . Chuck, the courage, resourcefulness, and integrity which you have displayed so magnificently throughout over five decades of service to the United States are the very qualities that built this country into the greatest nation on earth.'
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