Think of test pilots like Chuck Yeager as the wingsuit athletes of their day — every flight was an unknown and possibly their last. Even before testing experimental aircraft, Yeager had a thing for adrenaline. A decorated World War II pilot, he was once shot down over France, evading capture by crossing by foot over the Pyrenees into Spain. After the war, Yeager reported for duty as a test pilot, and the timing — just as the government was exploring the idea of using an aircraft to break the sound barrier, something only bullets and missiles were capable of up to that point. Many experts were convinced that an aircraft would rip apart at those speeds. And Yeager certainly had some close calls: He nearly lost control of an experimental Bell X1 rocket plane on several occasions while testing its limits. But on October 14, 1947, after Yeager’s X1 was dropped out of the bomb bay of a B-29, he pushed the throttle to the hilt and managed to keep his aircraft steady until it hit 662 miles per hour, sending a now-famous boom across the Southern California desert. He went on to become commander of the U.S. military’s test-pilot program.
• In October 1947, Yeager became the first person to break the sound barrier.
• In 1953, he set new speed record for going past Mach 2 — a whopping 1,650 mph.
• In 1962 he became head of the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School to train astronauts.
The Last Word: Yeager’s supersonic flight was a giant leap forward for future space missions, and there’s no doubt he had played a key role in helping America reach the moon in 1969. But he also provides a model for every experimental airman who followed: he saw the potential importance of every flight and was willing to shoulder the risk.