American adventurer Steve Fossett made aviation history Tuesday, becoming the first person to fly solo around the world in a balloon. The 58-year-old Chicago millionaire took two weeks to complete the flight that would add his name to the list of aviation firsts.
Fifty-five years ago, it took a young pilot from West Virginia only 14 minutes to make the list. Chuck Yeager belonged to an elite brotherhood of fighter pilots during World War Two. He shot down eleven German planes, evaded capture after being shot down himself and, against U.S. Air Force policy, continued flying missions in Europe. Yet the retired Brigadier General is best remembered for that single historic 14-minute flight.
The year was 1947. America was recovering from World War II and Harry Truman was president. Officials at what is now Edwards Air Force Base in California, were testing the nation's first research rocket aircraft. They wanted to see if they could get the X-1 airplane to go faster than the speed of sound - 1207 kilometers an hour - "Mach 1". A 24-year-old World War II veteran and ace pilot from Myra, West Virginia was chosen to perform the test. On that bright October morning, Chuck Yeager had no idea he was about to take his place in history.
"We were doing research flying, in areas where no one had ever been before," Mr. Yeager said of that historic day. "Basically, they didn't know if we'd get the airplane above the speed of sound or not. It was your job to try and that's exactly what I did, and we were successful."
Reaching Mach 1 shattered the myth of the "sound barrier", that humans and machines would be destroyed at that speed. Earlier efforts had killed dozens of pilots when their planes neared Mach 1 and were pulled apart by shock waves. Lessons learned from those flights were incorporated into the design of the X-1. Chuck Yeager says, in a plane that can stand the supersonic stress, traveling faster than sound really doesn't feel that unusual.
"Flying to me is just like driving cars," he said, "There's no sensation. You've got a bunch of mechanical hardware you're using to do a job with. Flying is no different than doing anything else."
General Yeager may downplay his role in those tests, but according to his friend Jim Zumbo, an editor, it was an extraordinary event to be part of. "They put America in the number one position in terms of being a powerful nation militarily and being able to win wars. That's what it was all about," he said. "He was right there in the forefront and flew as one of the best test pilots ever."
While General Yeager may be best remembered for being the first to break Mach 1, he's also the first pilot to encounter inertia coupling, in which G-forces cause the plane to spin out of control. Later he became the commandant of the Aerospace Research Pilot School, which trains all U.S. Military astronaut candidates. He has also won every major international award in the field of flight, as well as the highest American honors, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Medal of Honor. Yet he sees his historic flight as just another mission in a military career that took him to battlefronts around the world.
"I don't look at my career in the Air Force as highs and lows," he commented, "It's been pretty steady. Basically 29 years after I broke Mach 1, I was still in Vietnam fighting and different places. "
It's been 27 years since General Yeager retired from the Air Force, but at the age of 79 he's still going strong on the lecture circuit. He usually speaks about his exploits as a fighter pilot in World War II, as well as his thoughts on breaking the sound barrier. After today's talk at a writers' conference in West Virginia, a long line of fans gathers around the stage, each wanting an autograph or photo with the legendary pilot. Jim Zumbo says the General always obliges.
"Sitting there watching him and listening to him is a thrill for me," Mr. Zumbo said. "I've known him for so many years and I love watching the audience. They're so in awe of him. It's neat to be part of that whole thing."
Writer Marty Malin traveled from Laredo, Texas to be part of this audience. He says in these times of renewed patriotism, it's especially important for Americans to have someone like General Yeager to look up to. "General Yeager is a true American hero," he said. "Those of us with a little white in our beards know about his exploits. Here's a young man who came straight out of high school and became an ace pilot. In my estimation he's someone who represents what this country is all about."
When asked how he'd like to be remembered in the history books, Chuck Yeager says he really can't answer that because it's not up to him… but he hopes it's good. If his fans have anything to say about it, it won't just be good, it will portray him as a true American hero.