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The Reluctant Celebrity : When Chuck Yeager's Best-Selling Autobiography Came Out, the Man Who Broke the Sound Barrier Took to the Woods, Not the Talk-Show Circuit

October 13, 1985|PAUL DEAN | Paul Dean is a Times staff writer

Monday, if research and personal schedules al low, a softer, older Chuck Yeager will fly in private celebration. He'll be over Rogers Dry Lake and Edwards Air Force Base in an F-20 Tigershark, the scarlet-on-white jet fighter he works as a consulting test pilot for Northrop Corp. And tomorrow's flight will be work: Aerospace firms no longer have jet fuel and multimillion-dollar aircraft to spare for self-indulgent pilots. Even legends.

But after all tests have been run, no one will gripe if Yeager points his airplane to where atmosphere becomes space and blue turns to pastel purple. There he'll romp and shadowbox clouds and if there's another fighter in the area he just might roll in and bounce it.

For 30 of the past 38 years, Yeager has flown to mark this fall day, in 1,400-mile-an-hour combat fighters and aboard his own 60-mile-an-hour ultralight. Except on Sundays. Yeager once was an enlisted Air Force mechanic. He will not work his ground crews on Sundays--not even for his private rite of Oct. 14.

On that day in 1947, more than eight miles above the Tehachapi Mountains, Yeager flew a Bell X-1 rocket ship christened "Glamorous Glennis." In an orange pipe bomb named after his wife but shaped after a machine-gun bullet, he became the first man to overtake Mach 1, the speed of sound.

"We didn't know it (the flight) was going to be above Mach 1," Yeager, now 62, recalls. "We were just increasing our Mach number. All I was going to do was to go on up and probably run it out to about .98."

Yeager actually ran it out to Mach 1.06, which at 43,000 feet (where thinner air lowers the speed of sound) is about 700 m.p.h.

In doing so, he became the fastest man alive. He'd slipped through a challenge that had killed others. And he changed from an unknown junior officer to an international celebrity who still commands standing ovations four decades later.

His autobiography has spent months at the top of the best-seller list on both coasts and produced a fresh surge of worship for an elderly hero.

Yet it has not budged Yeager from his privacy and preferences. The week the book was published, as talk show hosts called, as magazine writers demanded interviews, Yeager was unreachable and away from the fuss--backpacking and trout fishing the High Sierra.

Ever the realist, Yeager neither overbuilds the achievement nor inflates the elation of his first supersonic flight.

"There have been lots of things written about (my) feelings," says Yeager. "Well . . . you just sit there and have a fleeting thought like: 'Man, that wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be.' "

Flying faster than sound had challenged aeronautical engineers since the '20s. The limits seemed clear. Propeller blades lost lift as planes approached Mach 1. Compressibility--air piling up ahead of a speeding shape--caused airflows to separate, controls to freeze and airplanes to disintegrate.

One aerodynamicist declared that it would take a 30,000-horsepower engine to exceed the speed of sound. He called that a "barrier against further progress."

A barrier. The sound barrier. But the National Aeronautics Advisory Committee, forerunner of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and Bell Aircraft Corp., manufacturer of World War II fighters, finally broke through. The means were almost simple.

Bullets and shells travel faster than the speed of sound, and they don't break up. So Bell built an airplane with the profile of a machine-gun bullet.

Then, since propellers and air-breathing engines--including turbojets--couldn't produce the necessary power, a form of propulsion that required neither was developed: a rocket, a four-chamber blowtorch fueled by compressed liquid oxygen and alcohol.

And to reduce fuel loads so that the plane would be smaller and lighter and would reach high altitudes more easily, the Bell X-1 would be dropped from the belly of a B-29 Superfortress.

After civilian test pilots proved too expensive--one wanted $150,000 to fly the program--the Army took over. Yeager, stationed at Muroc as a maintenance officer, a World War II ace with two Silver Stars, agreed to fly the X-1. The cost would be his military salary of $238 a month.

At 24, he was an aggressive showman. But he was also a calculated perfectionist.

"I know everything I possibly can about the survival equipment that has been given to me, for when things start falling apart . . . you'd better well know how (to use it) even in a subconscious condition. That's the way you survive."

That was how he survived the first 11 flights in the X-1. There were in-flight fires, and a flight into the transonic range, beyond Mach .7, when he lost all pitch control. "I just sat there and flopped the controls back and forth," he remembers.

And it was a cool assessment of risks versus his ability that made Yeager fly that Oct. 14 with broken ribs from a horseback-riding accident two days earlier.

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