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Chuck Yeager
Chuck Yeager
Profile of Chuck Yeager Biography of Chuck Yeager Interview with Chuck Yeager Chuck Yeager Photo Gallery

Chuck Yeager Interview

First Man to Break the Sound Barrier

February 1, 1991
Cedar Ridge, California

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  Chuck Yeager

Tell us about the day you broke the sound barrier in the X-1. We understand that you weren't feeling too great in the rib area.

Chuck Yeager: The X-1, to me, was a sort of a "fly twice a week" airplane. It took two or three days to reduce the data from your flight. It was a complex airplane that gets serviced with liquid oxygen and alcohol and gaseous nitrogen. And in the meantime, I'm flying about 15 other airplanes every day, on different test programs, so it was a hard grind. The X-1 was a pleasure to fly, because you took the whole day to do it. That particular flight, I think was on a Tuesday. On the weekends, there at Muroc, as it was called then, we used to go out to Pancho Barnes's. She had a rodeo grounds, swimming pool, motel and a good restaurant. You'd go out there and unwind. And I took Glennis out there, I think, on a Saturday night. We loved to ride horses, so we went out after dinner and were riding horses and chasing each other. Coming back, somebody closed a gate, it was dark and I didn't see it, so my horse hit the fence and flipped me, and I broke a couple of ribs. And that was on a Saturday night. Sunday I moped around, and then Monday, I had to go into the base and I went to a local doctor there, and he said, "You've got two busted ribs. I'll tape you up." And it really didn't make that much difference in flying the airplane, because it's not strenuous other than handling it with your hands and feet on the rudder pedals and the control surfaces and the loading pressure domes and turning switches on, and things like that. So my only problem was, it was painful to get into the airplane, because you had to come down a ladder and go through a little hole on the right side. But then the hard part was closing the door once old Jack Ridley came down the ladder and held the door against the right side. You had a lever. It took both hands all you could do it. I couldn't handle it with my right side, so he made me about a ten-inch long broom stick that I could stick in the end of the door handle to give me that mechanical advantage. That's the way we solved the problem. So that really didn't make much difference.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Chuck Yeager Interview Photo
Chuck Yeager Interview Photo

Did your superiors realize what was going on?

Chuck Yeager: We didn't have superiors, so called. We were working test pilots at Muroc, and our boss, Colonel Boyd, was at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio. We were pretty well on our own. And that's the way it was done in the old days. There was no big complex. No PR types and cameras and stuff like that. It was just a job. And that's exactly what we were doing.

You've described that flight as anticlimactic in some ways. Was that because it was unusually smooth?

Chuck Yeager: The X-1 was fun to fly, that's the way we looked at it, 'cause it was very interesting. When you do research flying, you are doing things and solving problems that no one else has been able to solve. So it was interesting to see all these things come along. The running out of elevator, that was new. All the engineers said, "Jeez, what's going on?" Then flying with the flying tail, that was something new. And it turned out pretty good, really. Actually, you really don't think about the outcome of any kind of a flight, whether it's combat, or any other kinds of flights, because you really have no control over it. And, that's the way I looked at the X-1. You don't worry about the outcome, obviously. You concentrate on what you are doing, to do the best job you can, to stay out of a serious situations. That's the way the X-1 was. When we got it above mach one without it flying apart, you can laughingly say now, "Well, I was disappointed because it didn't blow up." But that's not true. You are a little bit surprised that things didn't fly apart because that's the way you've been sort of thinking. But, when it didn't you are relieved.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

You weren't initially planning a breakthrough that day?

Chuck Yeager: It's not a matter of planning. We didn't know. Number one, we didn't know that we would ever break mach one. And as far as knowing when, we had no idea when. Because we didn't know what was going on. And it just worked out that way.

I gather that the descent that day was tricky.

Chuck Yeager: Well, no.

The X-1 was a specialized airplane. It was a liquid rocket powered airplane. You sat against a liquid oxygen tank about 290 below zero. It was cold. You had a lot of wind chill, frosting sometimes, especially when your breath condensed on the windshield. Of course you had an oxygen mask on. You were in 100 percent nitrogen gas atmosphere. All of the landings in the X-1 were tricky. I mean, that's the reason we used Rogers Dry Lake there at Muroc, now Edwards Air Force Base that the [space] shuttle lands on, because it was an easy lake to land on. And the X-1 was tricky to land, because it landed so fast, pushing 200 miles an hour. And all your landings were dead stick, meaning you flew it until you had exhausted all of your liquid oxygen and alcohol, so you were a glider, but a very fast glider. It was not difficult, because I was used to it.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Was it frustrating to you that the triumph of breaking through the sound barrier had to be kept quiet?

Chuck Yeager: Naw. We worked on a lot of classified programs. Even today, I work on classified programs, like Stealth technology. And to me, like I say, the X-1 was only one of about 12 or 15 different airplanes that I was flying weekly. And you were working on a lot of other test programs, so you didn't pay any attention to it.

Can you tell us what it's like when you're just about to be dropped from a B-29? What are you feeling?

Chuck Yeager: You don't feel anything. You're too busy. You're going through your checklist, loading the pressure regulators, the dome and checking all the instrumentation. And that's about the way of it. You listen to the B-29 crew, who's hauling you up, and you start diving to pick up speed so that he drops you out at a speed above your stall speed. Which, the stalling speed on the X-1 fully loaded was 240 miles an hour indicated which is pretty fast. You're heavy, and it's a compact little airplane, and you come out of a dark place into bright sunlight, and for a second you're kind of blinded. But it doesn't take you long for your pupils to shrink down. And you really don't give much thought to the drop. You are too busy.

But once you are dropped, there is no turning back.

Chuck Yeager: No, but they drop you within gliding distance of Rogers Dry Lake anyway, and if you don't get an ignition, or can't get your rocket engine running, which we did a couple times, then you jettison the fuel and go ahead and stick the airplane in.

Now, just about a week or so after you broke the sound barrier, you had kind of an unpleasant experience, on the 27th of October.

Chuck Yeager Interview Photo
Chuck Yeager: You mean when we had our battery fail? There again, you always try to leave yourself a way out, and we fortunately had put some small H-2 bailout bottles with nitrogen gas in them and tied them to the jettison valve so that if we lost all of our electrical systems, I still had a manual system of opening that valve and letting gaseous nitrogen open a jettison valve and get rid of the liquid oxygen and alcohol, because the airplane just wasn't designed to land with that kind of weight aboard. And it worked. We had tried it out on the ground, and fortunately, it worked in the air.

That's quick thinking under a lot of stress.

Chuck Yeager: Well, it's not quick thinking, you know the system. That's the reason I was picked for the X-1. It was easy for me to understand the systems. I knew them and, when something happened, I could pretty well analyze the problem and solve it.

Did Lady Luck have anything to do with that?

Chuck Yeager: Well, luck plays a big part in most everything you do. Sometimes if you've got bad luck, you don't survive. If you've got good luck, you do. You've got to understand systems. Even in today's airplanes, you have to understand systems. The better you understand them, the better off you are in case an emergency arises.

Tell us about the origin of the X-1 program. What was the purpose of that program? What were they hoping to accomplish?

Chuck Yeager Interview Photo
Chuck Yeager: In World War II, in combat in P-51s, during dog-fights with 109s and 190s, for the first time we became exposed to the effects of the speed of sound on our airplanes. A Mustang, a P-47, or any of the other fighters that we were using in World War II, the fastest they would go was about 80 percent the speed of sound. They had very thick wings and canopies. That additional distance that the air had to travel to go around that wing that's going at about 80 percent of the speed of sound, brought its relative velocity to the skin of the wing up to the speed of sound. And when this happened a shock wave formed on the thickest part of the wings and the canopy. Behind these shock waves was turbulent air, and your airplane would shake and buffet. It wasn't a hazard, it was just a nuisance if you were trying to track some guy at high speed.

So we knew a problem existed because of the relationship of the speed of sound to the airplane. So in 1944, the Army Air Corps led a contract with Bell Aircraft Company to build a little research rocket that would fly in the reach of the speed of sound, or faster, to find out what was causing this buffeting phenomenon or compressibility that was affecting our airplanes, like the P-51s of World War II and immediately after World War II. In '46 we developed jets that would fly out to about 80 percent of the speed of sound, straight and level. They ran into the same problem, because they had thick wings. Fortunately, we knew that we had a so-called sound barrier there; that we had to solve the problem, or we would never go any faster than we were doing at that time. And that's the reason the X-1 was made -- to solve those problems, or at least find out what was causing the compressibility or buffeting on the airplane.

How was the X-1 built to try and overcome that?

Chuck Yeager: Well, number one, they built the airplane with very thin wings so that the airplane could go faster before it ran into the buffeting problems. It was rocket-powered, which meant that you had full thrust at altitude -- jet engines decrease in thrust the higher you go -- and it was built about two-and-one-half times stronger than airplanes that we were flying at that time. The airplanes that we used in World War II, and the ones that were built immediately after World War II, were stressed for 7.33 Gs, or 7.33 times the pull of gravity and, if you overstressed them, they would break, obviously. The wings would break off and the like. But the X-1 was stressed for 18 Gs, positive or negative. So it would stay together in case you run into a problem. And also, it had a moveable, horizontal stabilizer. The tail-plane on all airplanes just stabilizes, and you have elevators on the back to make the airplane go up and down. Well, they built the capability into the X-1 to move the whole angle of the horizontal stabilizer, change the angle with that. That really was the big secret on how we got the airplane through the speed of sound. That horizontal stabilizer.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Did you think it was possible?

Chuck Yeager: Well, it's not a matter of thinking it's possible.

It's duty. It's just like flying combat. You know when you go on a combat mission, somebody is going to get killed, you just hope it isn't you. If it is, that's the way it goes. The same way with flying the X-1. It didn't make any difference to me whether I thought the airplane would go faster than sound. I was assigned as a test pilot on it, and it was my duty to fly it. That's the way most military pilots look at it.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

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