There were higher-scoring fighter aces and other hotshot test pilots, but nobody did both quite like Chuck Yeager.
Few, if any, individuals are as well-known in the annals of aviation history as Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager. An 11.5-victory fighter ace in World War II and a renowned test pilot, Yeager took his place alongside the Wright brothers and Charles Lindbergh on October 14, 1947, when he became the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound. On October 2, 1997, as the 50th anniversary of his historic flight approached, Brigadier General Yeager visited the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., to mark the occasion with a speech. Earlier that day, he had been hoisted into the cockpit of the Bell X-1 that is suspended from the ceiling of the museum’s main lobby. It was the first time he sat in the plane that took him through the sound barrier since he had personally delivered it to the Smithsonian Institution in 1950. Ever opinionated and never inclined to mince words, Yeager talked that day with Aviation History about his storied career.
AH: In your book, you mentioned that you didn’t think there was any such thing as natural pilot.
Yeager: Well, no, in my opinion there’s no such thing as a natural-born pilot. A pilot’s ability depends on experience, and the more experience a pilot has, the better he is. It’s that simple.
AH: Why did you get into flying in the first place?
Yeager: I had no knowledge of airplanes and I couldn’t care less about them. Until 1941, I’d never seen an airplane on the ground, or looked at an airplane, so it didn’t mean anything to me. But when I enlisted, like a lot of the high school kids did in ’41, I was put into aircraft maintenance when we were mobilizing because of my mechanical aptitude and was made crew chief. I served in October and November at Moffett Field as crew chief on T-6s. I couldn’t get into pilot training then, because I wasn’t 20 years of age and didn’t have two years of college. That was the requirement up until about November of ’41. Then, since the Army Air Corps was not getting enough applicants for pilot training, they lowered the requirement to 18 years of age and a high school diploma. But you would not be an officer; you had to go through the flying sergeant program. You went through as an enlisted trainee, enlisted pilot, and then made staff sergeant. So I applied, and the only reason I applied was, number one, the 150 bucks a month that the pilots were getting was a lot more money that the 30 dollars a month that I was getting.
AH: So at that time it was the money.
Yeager: And the fun of flying, I suppose. The pilots seemed to have a lot more fun. They didn’t work like we did, busting our knuckles. So I applied, and then I served about six or seven months, waiting to be called up for pilot training, because they were setting up pilot schools, and in the meantime I got my first ride in an airplane. About February of ’42, I took my first ride in an AT-11 that I was crew chief on at Victorville. I was deathly sick and puked all over the airplane, and I said to myself after the flight, “You’ve made a big mistake.”After that, I never flew anymore ’til I was called up to the flying school. Then, once I got into a PT-21—a little low-wing Ryan—with the instructor, on the first flight I was a little woozy, but when I started flying the airplane it all went away.
AH: At what point did you feel comfortable in an airplane?
Yeager: Probably when I soloed.
AH: When did it get to be fun?
Yeager: Well, there’s always fun. Probably after my second flight it began to be, when you found out that you could do a good job, then it got to be fun.
AH: One gets the impression that at a certain point you got so into flying that you could barely see doing anything else.
Yeager: The reason was, you weren’t allowed to do anything else. You trained as a fighter pilot, you went off to war. What’s your job? Fly in a fighter and shoot down airplanes. Or fly escort missions. You weren’t allowed to do anything else. And that’s probably been the whole story of my life; I was always faced with a job to do where duty became paramount. In combat you learn real quick that if you don’t have any control over the outcome of a situation, forget it. Concentrate on what you’re doing. Just stay out of that death arena, and that’s exactly the way we went through it, and I was disciplined that way. Sure, guys were getting killed on missions, but you never gave any thought to it ’cause you don’t have any control over it. And then when I came home and was assigned to Wright Field as a maintenance officer, not as a test pilot, I used to put on shows. Well, obviously, being a fighter pilot in combat, you’re pretty sharp at doing aerobatics, because that’s your lifeblood, so I used to do air shows there at Wright Field in the P-80s. The test pilots weren’t trained like Bob Hoover and I were, ’cause we were fighter pilots, and knew airplanes and flew them very well. Test piloting was a little different arena, you know; it’s a little more precision-type flying, and the Old Man [Colonel Albert G. Boyd] liked the way I put on the shows. Here I’m a maintenance officer, and he offered me the opportunity to go to the test pilot school. There I learned what precision flying was, and then when I got in the X-1, a lot of people said, “Well, what was your attitude toward the airplane?” And it didn’t make any difference what my attitude was. Duty is paramount. You don’t give any thought to the outcome. They said, “Did you think you’d be able to break the sound barrier?” It didn’t make any difference whether I thought I could or not. I had to try, because that’s my duty. And consequently, it was easy for me to transition into research flying because of my discipline in combat. It was easy for me, probably easier than anyone else who was available to fly the X-1.
AH: Could we talk a little bit about your combat experience?
Yeager: Basically, when we first got over there, with the Mustang’s capability, it opened up the possibility of taking the escort fighters all the way to the targets with bombers, bring them all the way back to the Channel, and then go back into Germany for targets of opportunity. It was a tremendous eight-hour airplane. Also, it was a tremendous high-altitude airplane, and it surprised the Germans very quickly. Now, initially we were required to stay around the box of bombers that we were charged to escort. That’s a bad deal, because the Germans just merely sit back and would hit and get away. Then when [Major] General [James H.] Doolittle came over, probably in March or April ’44, he said, “OK, let’s get these fighters away from the bombers and let ’em get out and tangle with the German fighters.” And that’s what we started doing then, ranging out 50 to 70 miles in front of the bomber stream to hit the fighters that were forming up to hit the bombers. That’s when the Mustang really started taking off. And on my eighth mission, the first daylight raid on Berlin on March 4, 1944, I was sitting over Berlin by a box of B-17s. If you look at the history, they try to give the first daylight raid on Berlin as March the 6th, but there was a recall on that [March 4] mission, when the whole force was going to Berlin. And this one box [31 B-17s of the 95th and 100th Bomb groups] didn’t get it; it went, we went with it, ’cause we didn’t get the recall either. The Germans sent the 109s up and we tangled with them. I shot down my first airplane that day, a 109. First I overshot the guy ’cause I was doing everything wide open, and he was not as fast as I thought. I overshot and pulled up to do a big roll, then come in under him. It was just like in the films, you know, the pieces just fly off and they explode, and you just make damn sure none of the pieces hit you. Then I found a Heinkel 111 and I got a few hits on it before it got in the clouds, and I came home and that was my first airplane that I shot down. The next day we went to Bordeaux with the B-24s and tangled with some 190s. I tried to make a head on pass with some 190s and got hit and that’s when I bailed out and evaded. And see, people are surprised, like they read about Scott Grady’s experience of escape and evasion [in Bosnia]—hell, that’s a way of life for a fighter pilot. It was not unusual at all. It was just blown out of shape by the White House and the press. ’Cause we were trained in escape and evasion. When I got shot down, it was easy for me to evade.
AH: Your experiences growing up in West Virginia, hiking and hunting, must have helped.
Yeager: It wasn’t in the Germans’ training to catch a West Virginian in the woods.
AH: Taking a wounded man across the Pyrenees rather complicated matters a bit, though.
Yeager: Well, that’s just the way of life; that’s the way it goes. That worked out good. Then being interned down there [in Spain] was really a piece of cake. They put you up in the best hotel, gave you money and cigarettes. I didn’t smoke so I sold the cigarettes on the black market for a tremendous amount of money. It was a soft life.
AH: You know Franco was ideologically closer to Hitler than to the Allies, though he played a careful game to stay out of the war.
Yeager: Spain was a neutral country and it complied with the international regulations. The American consul came up to Lierda, where we had gotten to, and put us up in a hotel, and gave us money and came to see us every week. We had the life of Reilly there; it was really neat. Then, finally, they gradually worked us down [south], then they made arrangements to deal with the Spanish government. Spain didn’t have any gasoline and no way of getting it, so the U.S. government traded gasoline for the airmen that were interned in Spain. They turned us over to the British at Gibraltar.
AH: But then came the tough part, trying to get back into combat.
Yeager: We went back to England, and the system was really good because they kept you isolated in a house there at 63 Brooks Street and interrogated you: “What’s your outfit? When did you get shot down? How did you get into Spain?” They were very meticulous about nobody infiltrating the system. And then they called a guy down from your outfit to identify you and then, after they’d satisfied their requirements to make damn sure nobody was trying to infiltrate the system, then you went back to your outfit and you went home. I didn’t want to go home, so I worked my way up through all these colonels and generals. The Old Man, General Eisenhower, the only reason he saw us was just, I think, because he thought it a compliment to see somebody who didn’t want to go home. He was a nice guy. He said, “I can’t give you permission to go back on combat, because if you’re shot down again, you compromise the underground system, but you go on back to your outfit and I’ll go on back to the War Department, and ask for permission for me to make a decision.” He did, and a week later the invasion started, the Maquis surfaced, the underground surfaced, and I got right back to the front.
AH: Did you feel it was your duty to get back in there and give it another shot?
Yeager: Well, thing is, I felt like all my buddies were still in this squadron, those who hadn’t been shot down, and I just felt I hadn’t done my job. I’d been taught to do my job, and that’s the reason when I went back I felt good about it. And I said, “Hell, if I come home as a flight officer, with one airplane, I’ll be a flight officer the rest of my life.”
AH: Can you tell us about the day you shot down five airplanes [October 12, 1944]?
Yeager: By then, I was still a really low-ranking officer in the [357th Fighter] Group, but I was one of the old hands and had a lot of experience and could see probably better than the majority of the guys in the group. So they let me lead the group, and hell, that really puts you in an excellent position. They had three squadrons, had a couple of lieutenant colonels leading the other squadrons, and here I was, a lieutenant leading the whole damn group. We were fragged [given an additional fragment order to the day’s operational order] to escort two boxes of bombers, so I put the 362nd Squadron on one box and the 364th on the other box, and took my squadron, the 363rd, and went out in front of the stream about 80 to 100 miles. There were Germans reported and there were broken clouds around and I spotted these 22 109s. I think the 109s probably thought we were 16 190s trying to join up, because after the fray I ran into 16 190s, but they got in the weather on me so I couldn’t get anymore. But when I spotted them, I moved around into the sun and they didn’t see us. We came in behind them and just overtook them, and hell, they let us crawl right in behind them. I know they saw us, we were so close, and when I opened up this guy broke in midair collision with one of the others. That’s when the crap hit the fan and we dropped our tanks and they all broke. As I remember—you tell it the way you remember it, and that’s not necessarily the way it happened—I pulled in behind a 109 and was hammering him, and his wingman cut the power back. I caught it out the corner of my eye, and about the time my target blew up, I broke full right, cut the power way back, slapped the flaps down about 20 degrees and came around. I was really about 50 feet from that guy, I was decelerating, and all I did was move off his right wingtip, kick right rudder and open up. And man, that sawed that airplane in two. I’m sure I killed the pilot.
AH: You sawed him, you mean, with your machine-gun fire?
Yeager: Yeah—we were so close. Then I followed another guy down with my wingman, and I blew him up. And then there were clouds and there were airplanes starting to go into clouds. We were climbing back up through the clouds, trying to stay VFR [visual flight rules] so we could see what was going on, and that’s when I saw this flight of 16 190s down below. They had tanks on them, and we started down after them, and they went in the weather and we could never find them. We came home, and then you sat down with the intelligence guys, wrote up an encounter report and they took your gun camera film. Then your wingman would write up an encounter report to confirm, and they’d send the package in and they’d come back with confirmed kills. I didn’t shoot down five. I hammered one guy, and there was a midair collision, but I claimed those two anyway.
AH: Later on [November 6], you got a Messerschmitt Me-262 and damaged a couple of others.
Yeager: Yeah, the 262s—we’d been briefed, been shown pictures of them and knew their performance capability. We knew they were 100 mph faster, straight and level, than we were. The first time that I saw the airplane I was at about 15,000 feet with a flight of four. We’d escorted bombers in and came back out, and then we went back in—we were just fooling around over Bremen. I looked down and at about 1 o’clock there were three 262s coming 180 degrees to us. I recognized them, probably after I saw they were moving so damn fast, so we went wide open, up to 3,000 rpm, and went down, trying to get a deflection shot. We rolled up behind them and got a hit or two on the wingman, then they just disappeared into the haze. We had no chance in the world. Then we saw two more, same thing—I climbed back up to 8,000 feet, they were down around 5,000, so we got a few hits on another one. Finally, we found the field they were all working out of, evidently, and there was one on the final approach, gear down, and so that was easy. I just rolled over, left my guys up for top cover and went on down. I overtook the guy fast—I was going 500 mph and he was going about 200—and just opened up at about 200 yards. I sawed his right wing up and the guy crash-landed short of the base.
AH: Didn’t you get a chance to fly a 262 later?
Yeager: Yeah, at Wright Field. But I’d also flown P-80s. Looking at the 262, had they dedicated it to air defense, it probably would have caused the war to last six months longer. But Germany was pretty well going down the tubes by the time they got the 262 in the fall of ’44. Now the P-80 had about the same performance and the same duration as the 262—both were Mach .8 airplanes. The P-80 had a little less armament, but we had three P-80s in England in January 1945, and had we needed the P-80s to match the 262, we could probably have had them in England in squadron strength by the summer of ’45, but then the war ended.
AH: In your book you described the Fw-190 as the most formidable opponent.
Yeager: It depends a lot on the pilot capability, but in my opinion, having equal pilots, the 190 was a little more superior than the 109. And the day I got four 190s [November 27], that was really a classic late-war dogfight, when either the Germans didn’t come up, or they sent every damn thing they had up—one of the two. You’d go for days and never see a German airplane, then all at once, man, they were thicker than hornets. On that particular day, our group had 48 planes up in three squadrons, 16 each. We were tasked to escort another P-51 group of 48 airplanes that each had one 500-pound bomb and one 170-gallon drop tank, to an underground fuel storage site somewhere in Poland. They were doing the navigating—they knew their target; we were just escorting. And so we had two drop tanks and eight hours of fuel initially. We were on long range cruise sitting up at 36-37,000 feet, and they were sitting at about 33,000, and evidently the Germans misinterpreted our force as a box of B-17s, not an escort, and they scrambled 150 190s and about 50 109s to intercept us. What we saw first was they were pulling [contrails] at about 33-35,000 feet. Looked like a cumulus cloud, then pretty soon it’d get dots in it. Andy [Clarence E. “Bud” Anderson] was leading the squadron, and then white flight, blue flight and green flight. I was in green flight, hidin’ high left at about 38,000, and when we saw them and they saw that we were fighters, they were very surprised probably. Anyway, when we broke into ’em that put me in the lead. Something like that only lasted about four or five minutes, total, and then you’d find yourself alone, without a wingman or nobody around and all the enemy going, either shot down or running home. It happens very quickly. I was climbing out to come home and I got the four 190s on that flight. That’s pretty much as I remember it, just a mass of airplanes going every way, every direction. You had to really be careful and watch your tail.
AH: That was an interesting story about your last flight [on January 15, 1945, during which he and Bud Anderson peeled off from the group and took a grand tour of the European sites Yeager had visited as an evadee].
Yeager: When Andy and I were down in Switzerland and Spain and Italy and France. Yeah, that was a good flight.
AH: Then to come back and find out that…
Yeager: The group had shot down 57 enemy planes. We might’ve got shot down, too, that’s the way we thought about it. That’s the way it goes.
AH: So how did you end up at Muroc [Army Airfield in California, now Edwards Air Force Base]?
Yeager: Well, I came back home, made basic instructor in the summer of ’45. The war ended in Europe, all of the POWs were released and all of the airmen, pilots, navigators, bombardiers and gunners who had been shot down and either evaded or were prisoners of war could select any air base in the United States and the Air Force would assign you there. That was a gift. And I said, man, that includes me, ’cause I was an evadee, and I was an instructor in T-6s at Perrin Field, Texas. The closest air base to my home was Wright Field, and I asked for it. They assigned me there. When I reported in, the personnel guys looked at my records. I was a 22-year-old fighter pilot, I had about 1,200 hours in P-39s and P-51s, but the thing that caught their eye was that I was a maintenance officer—had a maintenance Air Force specialty code. There was an opening in the fighter test section for a maintenance officer, and that’s where they assigned me. It was just pure luck. I got there and started flying functional test flights on all the airplanes they made. You know, when the crew chief worked on them, you’d fly them, just to check the systems out, and then you’d turn the mover to the test pilots. Like I said, the Old Man liked the way I flew, and I put on air shows, and he selected me for test pilot school. Then Bell got in a big flap with the NACA [National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA’s predecessor]. You see, the military had never been allowed to do research flying. Never. But the Air Force had conceived and paid for the X-1, which Bell then was managing. The NACA used civilian pilots, and there was bonus money involved. Well, old Colonel Boyd, chief of the flight test division, told the Air Force, since we were footing the bill, “Hey, goddamn, if you take that airplane over, we’ve got pilots that are a hell of a lot better than NACA has.” And by God, he was successful in getting it.
AH: Why were you selected for the X-1 program?
Yeager: I had a maintenance background and understood systems, and that little airplane hanging out there was a very dangerous little airplane. You had to really stay on top of the systems, in addition to flying it. I was the right guy for it, because I was a maintenance officer, and could obviously fly an airplane. That opened up Pandora’s box. Everything the NACA did was [aimed at] trying to keep the military out of this arena of research flying, and it was reflected in their attitude. In spite of them we got above Mach 1 in 93 days, and that got the military involved in research flying from then on with the X-1, X-1A, X-2, X-3, X-4, X-5, X-15. The military got into the arena and it opened up Pandora’s box.
AH: So for you it was never a situation of, “Gee, it would be nice to be a test pilot”?
Yeager: I trained, went to the test pilot school, and flew experimental planes from there on out. A lot of people think that I was only flying the X-1. Hell, the X-1 was one of about 10 different test programs that I was working on at that time. You worked seven days a week, and about 18 hours a day, and it was really a hard job.
AH: What was the X-1 like to fly?
Yeager: I only flew it a couple times a week, but it was a fun airplane to fly. It got you out of the grind of the other test programs. The day we got it above Mach 1 was the ninth powered flight. The way I looked at it, I finished that one, I’ve got nine more [test programs] to go. It didn’t mean anything, you know, breaking Mach 1. Yeah, it had been a barrier all of my flying life up until that time. Once we got the airplane through Mach 1 and found out that we needed a flying tail to control it, it took the rest of the world five years to find that out—how we got above Mach 1. Not the fact that we had got above Mach 1; the Air Force admitted that seven months after we did it, but not how. And it took the British and the French and the Soviet Union five years to find out that little trick.
AH: On that flight, did you have any expectations about what might happen at all?
Yeager: No, we weren’t planning on going Mach 1; we didn’t know we could go Mach 1. We were just increasing the Mach number and whatever happened, happened.
AH: What was the first thing you heard when you came out? Was it Bob Hoover [flying chase in a P-80] talking?
Yeager: No, we knew we’d got the airplane [through], ’cause we got a jump in the Mach meter, all the buffeting seemed quiet on the airplane, we had supersonic flow over the airplane. And when we got down the Air Force classified the whole program. You couldn’t say a goddamn word, but everybody knew it anyways.
AH: Did it bother you any that you didn’t receive recognition for it right away?
Yeager: No. That wasn’t the reason I flew the X-1. I did it because it was my duty. It didn’t make a rat’s to me what happened. Like I said, that was one test program finished, I got nine more to go now. We were doing test programs, working with flight test engineers. We were working on a lot of airplanes—P-84s and weapons management systems we were developing and things like that.
AH: Did you try to get out into Korea at all?
Yeager: No, I was tied up at Edwards in research flying. I only went out there to fly the MiG-15 that the guy defected with in January or February of ’53.
AH: So again, it was a case of doing your duty.
Yeager: We were doing research flying on the airplanes like the X-3, X-4, X-5 and the X-1A. On December 12, 1953, I got the X-1A out to 2.5 Mach.
AH: In Europe, you’d already had the challenge of leadership, and got better at that, but as a wing leader in Vietnam, what did you consider the real challenges there?
Yeager: Well, they were bigger. I had five squadrons, three different kinds of airplanes. As you mature from a flight leader, a captain, to a squadron commander, a lieutenant colonel, you no longer concentrate on being a flight leader. You gotta start delegating authority. Then, when you move up to wing commander, you’ve got a bigger outfit. Then you have to look at the big picture, you’ve got more support. That’s the way you mature in the Air Force. In Vietnam, I had my first wing. You gotta learn, you gotta know a lot about maintenance, which was easy for me because I’d been a maintenance officer and a crew chief and a GI.
AH: You’ve talked about combat as being really the ultimate experience for a pilot and how it gives you that edge over a civilian pilot. Where do you think that puts today’s military pilots, where combat is a rare experience?
Yeager: Well, it’s a specialized thing. Here again, capability depends on experience. If a pilot has experience in a modern fighter, like the F-15 or F-16, obviously he’s the best. I think one of the big things that’s happening, especially in the Reserve or Guard, is in the F-16 squadron, taking an airline pilot and letting him serve duty in an F-16. The airline experience he has doesn’t help a damn bit in the F-16. When he gets in the F-16, what do you have? Midair collisions and accidents. That’s stupid in my opinion.
AH: Is it possible for a pilot who’s good in one type of airplane to cross-train himself into another?
Yeager: Listen carefully. Experience makes the best pilot. Obviously, if the pilot’s going to fly an F-16, he’s got to have experience in fighters.
AH: What do you think of today’s Air Force?
Yeager: I think it’s highly capable. An airplane today is 10 times more effective than it was 10 years ago, and it’s a platform that goes Mach 2. Period. The big improvement: weapons systems, precision guided munitions—boy, [they’re] lethal. It’ll do a beautiful job.
AH: How do you think that’s changed the nature of a fighter pilot, or do you think fighter pilots are still the same?
Yeager: The same, only thing is, you can’t tangle close in anymore. Some guy on the periphery blows you out of the sky with a missile. Look at Iraq—33 airplanes shot down, every one of them beyond visual range with F-15s, F/A-18s.
AH: So you think the day of the dogfight is gone?
Yeager: Well, a close-in dogfight is becoming a thing of the past. It’s standoff weapons systems. Like I say, in Iraq, 33 airplanes shot down, every one beyond visual range. Wasn’t a gun used.
AH: If you look back over your career, is there a time you felt was the most exciting for you?
Yeager: Combat. WorldWar II, obviously.The most useful thing I ever did was fly the X-1.
AH: It’s certainly what made you a household name.
Yeager: Right place at the right time.
AH: To what do you attribute your survival over the years?
Yeager: A knowledge of egress systems and a feel for machinery, and also some luck.
AH: Do you have any advice for the youth of today who might want to take up flying?
Yeager: Hey, man, get a job you like and you’ll probably be quite good at it. And make your lifestyle fit your income. Don’t try to make your income fit your lifestyle. It’s that simple. Guys who like their job, they’re very good at it. I don’t care what it is.
AH: You don’t seem like the sort who would have any, but are there any regrets at all?
Yeager: No. And the same way, if I had it to do it all over again, would I? Sure. Naturally. It’s kind of a stupid question. ’Cause you have no control over something so you don’t cry about spilled milk—that’s a good SOP.
AH: You just grab the moment and make the most of it.
Yeager: Hey, you live from day to day and you learn the three—you honor your flag, and your country and by God, duty is paramount. That’s the way you live your life in the military, and that’s the way it should be. That’s the facts of life.
This is an abbreviated version of a two-part interview that originally appeared in the May/July 1998 issues of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here!