Any article that attempts to list the accomplishments of Chuck Yeager is destined to be very long or incomplete. The man who became the first person to break the sound barrier would be destined for the history books, even without that accomplishment. With so many “firsts” and accomplishments to his name, it is easy to overlook one of his amazing adventures, which may have been the most dramatic of anything this remarkable man ever achieved.
Yeager had already made a name for himself before breaking the sound barrier. During World War II, he shot down over a dozen German planes. On October 12 and November 27, 1944, he even gained the distinction of shooting down more than four planes in a single day.
After piloting a Bell X-1 rocket plane to Mach 1.06 on October 14, 1947, Yeager broke a number of additional speed records, reaching the speed of 1,650 mph (Mach 2.4) on December 12, 1953. This record would stand for three years.
It was ten years later that Yeager achieved another “first” in a flight that has to go down as one of the most terrifying in history. The date was December 10, 1963. Yeager boarded a Lockheed NF-104 Starfighter. This plane was a modified F-104, fitted with a rocket, making it capable of flying to an altitude of 140,000 feet.
At this altitude, Yeager had to wear a pressure suit similar to the kind astronauts wear. The gear was bulky, but it was necessary in light of the extremely hostile conditions.
The flight proceeded without incident as Yeager passed 104,000 feet. At that point, everything started to go wrong. The air was too thin for the standard plane controls, but it was too thick to use the thrusters. His plane stalled and fell into a flat spin and began plummeting back to earth at a breathtaking 9,000 feet per minute.
Yeager attempted to slow the plane by deploying the chute. He also used this maneuver to position the plane’s pitch downward so he could recover from the stall. This seemed to work, but once he jettisoned the chute, the plane pitched back up, again placing it in a stall.
Left with no other options, and realizing he was less than a minute from crashing, he jettisoned Yeager ejected from the plane at an altitude of 8,000 feet. In so doing, he added another “first” to his list of accomplishments: he became the first pilot to eject in full compression gear under emergency conditions.
The term “emergency conditions” hardly does justice to Yeager’s situation. As he ejected from the out-of-control plane, the pressure suit was covered with propellant. As the plane spun wildly, fire from the aircraft spread to the propellant, setting Yeager’s suit ablaze.
Yeager had no time to worry about trivialities such as becoming a human Roman candle. He worked to deploy his chute so he would not share the fate of his plane, which was just then exploding upon contact with the ground. Just as he was making sure his chute was properly deployed, the fire outside his suit spread to the oxygen in his suit. Within seconds the inside of his helmet became a raging inferno.
Yeager kept his cool and used all his training to deal with the fire that threatened to cook him alive. When he hit the ground, he stripped off his suit — no easy task, considering its bulk. He was covered in extensive burns, and the injury to one of his eyes was so severe that physicians almost had to remove it. He also broke a finger.
And he walked away from the crash.
There’s no question why people refer to Chuck Yeager as having “The Right Stuff.”
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