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Chuck Yeager was a barrier breaker

Chuck Yeager with an F-84C Thunderjet in Farmingdale

Chuck Yeager with an F-84C Thunderjet in Farmingdale in 1948, one year after he broke the sound barrier. Credit: Cradle of Aviation Museum

In the golden age of American folk heroes, there may have been none more folksy and more heroic than Chuck Yeager.

The nonpareil test pilot was known to one generation as the charismatic West Virginian who succeeded in one of humanity's more audacious quests — breaking the sound barrier in 1947. Later generations knew him as a legend from "The Right Stuff," in which author Tom Wolfe described Yeager as "the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff." Sam Shepard's depiction of an unflappable Yeager in the 1983 movie of the same title further mythologized his accomplishments.

Yeager's death this week at age 97 was a poignant reminder of an ascendant America adept at breaking boundaries. He was part of the irresistible surge of American technology during and after World War II, which produced things that were bigger, faster and more powerful than anything the world had seen. He also embodied the American ideal of stoic bravery. As he told Time magazine in 1949, "I’ll be back all right. In one piece, or a whole lot of pieces."

Many pilots had died trying to exceed Mach 1, the speed of sound, before Yeager did it on Oct. 14, 1947. Hitting 700 miles per hour over California's Mojave Desert, he proved wrong the contention that a plane, upon breaking the sound barrier, would be ripped apart by the shock waves. Yeager's flight launched America into the supersonic age; six years later, he was the first person to exceed Mach 2.

His success inspired for its improbability. Born and raised in Appalachia, he never went to college, joined the Air Force, became a mechanic, and threw up the first time he went up in a plane. But he worked his way up to a decorated fighter pilot in World War II, then an Air Force general, America's most revered test pilot, and the trainer of astronauts. He even appeared in commercials and a TV sitcom.

The right stuff, Yeager wrote modestly in his bestselling memoir, is experience and perseverance: "The secret to my success was that somehow I always managed to live to fly another day."

In reality and in our imagination, in life and in death, Chuck Yeager soared.

— The editorial board

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