Chuck Yeager passed away on the evening of December 7th, at the age of 97. He was known for being the first pilot to break the sound barrier on October 14, 1947, an attempt that had killed other pilots in other planes. He hit Mach 1 in a plane that bounced like a bucking horse. No press was there, no selfies were taken. In fact, the whole thing was kept under wraps for months.
In 2011, Yeager told NPR that the lack of publicity never much mattered to him. “I was at the right place at the right time. And duty enters into it. It’s not, you know, you don’t do it for the — to get your damn picture on the front page of the newspaper. You do it because it’s duty. It’s your job.”
Yeager began his military career enlisting as private in the United States Army Air Forces in 1941 and rose to the rank of brigadier general in the United States Air Force. He was a fighter “ace” and with 20/10 vision, he could see enemy aircraft before his fellow pilots.
He was a test pilot on multiple types of aircraft and over a lifetime, flew 150 different types of military aircraft and some 360 overall, logging more than 10,000 hours in the air. He was a celebrity to his military colleagues, but gained additional celebrity status after the publication of the book, “The Right Stuff” and subsequent film by the same name. He had a cameo appearance in the movie as a bar tender, while actor Sam Shepard played Yeager.
Flying threaded its way through his entire life. The poem “High Flight,” was written by a 19-year old American airman about the wonder of flight during World War II and it seems fitting here.
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds–and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of–wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,
Where never lark, or even eagle, flew;
And while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high, untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Perhaps it’s fitting that Yeager “slipped the surly bonds of earth” on a day our nation spent remembering WWII.