Flying High with Chuck Yeager Washington Post aviation reporter Del Wilber got a chance to fly with Chuck Yeager, the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound. Yeager broke the sound barrier 60 years ago, on Oct. 14, 1947.
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Hear aviation reporter Del Wilber fly over the Sierras with Chuck Yeager.

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Flying High with Chuck Yeager

Flying High with Chuck Yeager

Hear aviation reporter Del Wilber fly over the Sierras with Chuck Yeager.

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/15229836/15286978" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Retired Gen. Chuck Yeager, 84, hasn't softened in the 60 years since he became the first person to break the sound barrier. Richard Wisdom for NPR hide caption

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Richard Wisdom for NPR

Retired Gen. Chuck Yeager, 84, hasn't softened in the 60 years since he became the first person to break the sound barrier.

Richard Wisdom for NPR

Capt. Charles "Chuck" Yeager in 1947, the year he became "the fastest man on Earth," in his plane, the Glamorous Glennis. Keystone/Getty Images hide caption

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Keystone/Getty Images

Capt. Charles "Chuck" Yeager in 1947, the year he became "the fastest man on Earth," in his plane, the Glamorous Glennis.

Keystone/Getty Images

Washington Post aviation reporter Del Wilber (left) got a chance to fly with Yeager in California. Richard Wisdom for NPR hide caption

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Richard Wisdom for NPR

Washington Post aviation reporter Del Wilber (left) got a chance to fly with Yeager in California.

Richard Wisdom for NPR

Yeager took Wilber on a tour of the Sierras in California. Yeager continues to fly at 84 years old, even though he says he won't miss flying if he gives it up. Richard Wisdom for NPR hide caption

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Richard Wisdom for NPR

Yeager took Wilber on a tour of the Sierras in California. Yeager continues to fly at 84 years old, even though he says he won't miss flying if he gives it up.

Richard Wisdom for NPR

Breaking the Sound Barrier

When Air Force Capt. Charles "Chuck" Yeager, a World War II fighter ace, accelerated his Bell X-1 rocket-powered plane to 662 mph on Oct. 14, 1947, he became the first person to travel faster than the speed of sound.

After breaking the local sound barrier, which varies based on atmospheric pressure and temperature, he managed to reach a top speed of 700 mph, or Mach 1.06.

The breakthrough, which came at a time of widespread experimentation during and after World War II, led to the building of many other military aircraft that could travel at supersonic speeds. The first supersonic commercial plane, the Concorde, which was built by British and French manufacturers, began regular service in 1976 and stopped in 2003.

Yeager notes that his flight "opened up space for us." The data collected in the X-1 tests helped engineers develop the X-15 rocket-powered research plane, which helped scientists gain more information about both supersonic flight and the upper atmosphere.

Yeager's feat overcame the doubts of many aerodynamicists and engineers who had believed that it was not practically possible to travel faster than sound because of forces that could tear the plane apart. Yeager's plane had been designed for research, with thin wings and a fuselage patterned after a .50-caliber bullet. Before breaking the sound barrier, the plane was launched from a B-29.

The news of the 24-year-old Yeager's achievement over the Mojave Desert in California was first reported in Aviation Week magazine on Dec. 22, 1947. The Air Force finally confirmed the report in June 1948, adding that Yeager had flown faster than the speed of sound many times by then.

Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica, Facts on File

Imagine batting practice with Hank Aaron, a cooking class with Julia Child — or an airplane flight with Chuck Yeager.

Yeager became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound on Oct. 14, 1947. Sixty years later, he's still flying — and he hasn't softened with age.

Washington Post aviation reporter Del Wilber, also a pilot, got to meet up with Yeager on a small airstrip in northern California for a flight.

The 84-year-old Yeager wore jeans pulled up to his belly button and an Air Force baseball cap. He wasn't interested in talking about being a World War II fighter ace or flying rocket planes and breaking the sound barrier.

When asked if he still likes flying, he responded, "I never did like flying. How does that grab you? We'll concentrate on flying. So let's quit asking questions."

In a nearby hangar, where Yeager's friend stores his plane, Yeager pulled the dipstick out of the single-engine Husky to check the oil. "Doesn't run very good without it," he said.

Yeager is the guy from The Right Stuff. He has flown some of the fastest and most famous planes ever made. But he is not the least bit sentimental.

After wheeling the plane out, Yeager slipped easily into the cockpit, while Wilber bashed his head on the wing.

"These things will cut you to pieces," Yeager said.

On a tour of the rugged mountains of the Sierras, Yeager "puttered" along at 100 mph. Not fast for a man who "flew the SR-71 a lot — 3.26 Mach, 2,300 mph."

He said it casually, but 2,300 mph is faster than most bullets travel. It is New York to Los Angeles in less than an hour.

The last person who flew with Yeager paid more than $90,000 to a charity auction for the honor, but he agreed to fly with Wilber for the cost of fuel. He didn't explain why.

When asked about breaking the sound barrier, he said, "It opened up space for us and put us ahead of the rest of the world in aeronautical knowledge."

When the plane touched down, there was barely a bump. "If you can walk away from a landing, it's a good landing," Yeager said. "If you use the airplane the next day, it's an outstanding landing."

When Wilber tried to get Yeager to talk about flying, he ended up talking about religion — and how he doesn't need it in the cockpit.

"It's really difficult for fanatic churchgoers to understand God can't help me. I'm the only one who can help me," he said. "Are you going to give up and go make a smoking hole or are you going to save yourself? If you [want to] make a smoking hole, you pray all the way down."

He said he didn't accept the X-1 sound barrier flights for the glory. "When I was picked to fly the X-1, it was my duty to fly it and I did," he said.

Yeager says he won't miss flying if he gives it up. "I can walk away from airplanes today and it doesn't make any difference to me. I got other things to do, like fishing and hunting."

When asked why he still flies, he responded, "To get some place to hunt and fish."

But when Yeager drove away in his family SUV, the vanity license plates read "Bell X-1A." The Bell X-1 is the plane that broke the sound barrier.