He Slipped The Surly Bonds Of Earth: RIP Chuck Yeager

“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.
Hovering 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.”

That is from the poem “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr. It was written in 1941, but it surely envisioned the later life and exploits of Chuck Yeager. Later that year, in December, Magee, a pilot in the RCAF, and his Spitfire collided with another plane over England. Magee, only 19 years old, crashed to his death. He could not have known the reach of his poem over all the years, nor how it might describe another pilot, Chuck Yeager. But it did.

Yesterday, Chuck Yeager passed away at the age of 97. He was a true American hero in every sense. The first human to break the speed of sound. Arguably the finest test pilot in history.

From the early Washington Post obituary:

He first stepped into a cockpit during World War II after joining the Army Air Forces directly out of high school. By the end of the war, he was a fighter ace credited with shooting down at least 12 German planes, including five in one day. Making the military his career, he emerged in the late 1940s as one of the newly created Air Force’s most revered test pilots.
He later trained men who would go on to join NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs. Throughout his life, he broke numerous speed and altitude records, including becoming the first person to travel 21/2 times the speed of sound.
His greatest breakthrough occurred on Oct. 14, 1947, when a B-29 aircraft released then-Capt. Yeager and his squat, orange Bell X-1 experimental craft at nearly 20,000 feet over California’s Mojave Desert. The Bell X-1 was propelled by a four-chamber rocket engine and a volatile mix of ethyl alcohol, water and liquid oxygen, and Gen. Yeager named it “Glamorous Glennis” after his first wife. Gen. Yeager, traveling at nearly 700 mph, broke the sound barrier.
Not that Gen. Yeager’s career lacked its frightening moments. While he was able to pull out of at least one situation in 1953, when his plane spun out of control for 50,000 feet, he wasn’t so lucky in 1963 when, after reaching near space, he ejected from an NF-104 and suffered burns that required several surgeries.

After the last incident in that WaPo quote, Yeager got back in and kept flying. Because that is who and what he was.

Go read the entire WaPo obituary, it is, and this is an understatement, the stuff of legend. Yeager was also the glue that held together the famed book “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe. Forget the movie, read the book. I cannot find my copy right now, but the stories in it are wonderful, and the best ones were arguably about Yeager, who trained the early astronauts but never became one. He did not want to be a proverbial monkey in a cage, so he kept on as a test pilot and fighter pilot.

As Wolfe would paint in his book:

“He was going faster than any man in history, and it was almost silent up here, since he had exhausted his rocket fuel, and he was so high in such a vast space that there was no sensation of motion. He was master of the sky.”


“The most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.”

Yes. Quite a man.

50 replies
  1. Silly but True says:

    RIP. He’ll never have an equal, but we can only hope they one day again make them like Yeager.

    • Fraud Guy says:

      This is why I feel people shouldn’t try to be half the person their parent was; they should try to be better. We should be getting more Yeagers, not fewer.

  2. Raven Eye says:

    I worked for a Navy captain who had been a P-3 squadron commander. They once planned a safety stand-down and were wondering who they could get to speak to the assembled crews and personnel. Somebody piped up: “Let’s invite Chuck Yeager”. Pause. And then they did. And he said “Yes”.

    He was on message about safety, but also had a lot of other interesting tales to share — and was very gracious. It was quite a success.

    The squadron also invited Yeager to take a flight in a P-3, flying right seat to the guy I eventually worked for. Once off the ground and over the Pacific, Yeager was asked if he had ever flown a P-3 before. His answer was: ”No.” Naturally, Yeager was given control of the airplane and proceeded to go through a number of standard familiarization maneuvers and procedures…All executed flawlessly.

    My boss’s summary was: “The best ‘stick’ I ever saw”. (By the time VP pilots reach the rank of commander, they’ve got a lot of hours and aren’t easy to impress.)

  3. John Paul Jones says:

    My favourite story in the book was the 1963 incident, a catastrophic cascade of consequences brilliantly told by Wolfe. I won’t spoil it, everyone should read it for themselves. Took me a while, but I finally found the book on a remote shelf: pp. 421 (bottom) to 431. They didn’t really get it right in the movie, just as they didn’t really get the brainy side of test piloting, that these guys were not just airplane drivers but highly intelligent and educated professionals.

  4. Chuck says:

    Remember reading his autobiography in high school along with hours and hours of Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat on PC. His mission mentioned in some of the obits when he shot down five German planes made him an “ace” in one day. The breadth of what he flew and how far to the edge he flew it is mind boggling. Truly the right stuff combined perfectly with the right era. May he keep soaring.

  5. jaango says:

    My Tip of the Hat to bmaz for his having crafted this thread relative to General Chuck Yeager.

    And since I of the firm belief that we, the Chicanos will write another version of America’s history, the Yeager story is one for the books when our nation’s behavior for a White Filter, is competently addressed.

    Take, for example, when Yeager was the commander of the 405th Fighter Wing, he had achieved the maximal success expected given that he was only a high school graduate and with no college behind him. As such, upward promotion ladder was not to be his forte.

    Moreover, he was the doormat for success, since his lesser compatriot was Lt. Colonel George Cap, as commander of the 13th Tactical Combat Squadron, and thusly, he too was a high school graduate with no college behind him. Consequently, Yeager sought out and achieved his highly successful career for recruiting combat pilots who were enamored with the lesser technology that was contained in the B-57 aircraft utilized in the Vietnam War.

    Consequently, my military service included the Vietnam War, and in particular, thus, the competent usage for what was then known as the Aussie’s B-57 aircraft, and therefore, I served in the operations section, along with six of my fellow enlisted soldiers and until I rotated out eighteen months later.

    And long story short, many of the pilots arrived knowing that the “white filter” was the place to be, when practicing hard work, self-discipline and ambition. Subsequently, the pilots, for the most part, were Lt. Colonels in the latter latter stages of their careers. And after a successful pilot pursuit, a large number achieved the appropriate accolades, and achieved their promotions to the appropriate number or level of stars generic to a General Status.

    And yet, the “door closer” was the pre-emptive success of an African American, a four-star general in charge of the 13th Air Force. He was a former pilot in Europe during World War Two, and subsequently, had a large appreciation for those who did the daily work without all the pending accolades. He–Yeager and Cap, and this general insured that the pilots deserved their just deserts for having placed their lives at risk and on a daily basis over long periods of time.

    And yes, this White Filter, ingrained into me, my life long pursuit for hard work, self-discipline and ambition.

    • J R in WV says:

      I live in Gen. Yeager’s home county, and have close friends who live in the neighborhood where he grew up. While no one can criticize Chuck Yeager’s skill as a pilot, not his bravery in combat… General Yeager was a stone racist, as are the vast majority of the people in this rural WV county. Lincoln county, actually, to be as ironic as is possible.

      I have seen 16mm film of General Yeager flying his fighter aircraft under the bridges over the Kanawha River in Charleston. Against all the safety rules, not that that mattered to him as a pilot. He was head of the unit for training astronauts, and when the unit received a Major with great evaluations, yet was an African-American Major, Chuck Yeager made sure he was run out of the Astronaut program he led.

      A lot of contrasts to be found there. As a person who believes that African-Americans deserve true equality of opportunity, I have a hard time giving General Yeager his due. Great pilot, brave warrior, racist, also, too.

    • YinzerInExile says:

      Allow me to be the first both to own up to my age and to thank you for sharing that memory. I miss the days when there were hours in which it was literally impossible to watch television.

    • person1597 says:

      Thanks for that video… The F-104 lives on! And so does the WB-57(…thanks NASA!) Chuck has always been the role model for every Beemans chewer (with a stick and rudder at hand).

    • Worried says:

      When I started reading this posting the poem immediately took me back to my days (nights actually) as a teen when I would watch the soaring jet and the narrator talking about touching the face of God as the channel was about to go blank. Thanks for the video.

    • bmaz says:

      Cevert was a wonderful driver. By the time of his death, he was every bit as fast as Stewart, and was set to take over as Tyrell’s top driver as Stewart was retiring at the end of the year. The esses at Watkins Glen were brutal. What a loss. Stewart did not run the race, and never ran F1 again.

      • Raven Eye says:

        My one trip to Watkins Glen was for that race. When Stewart was making practice laps, you could close your eyes and know when he was on the track — absolutely smooth.

  6. Marc McKenzie says:

    One of my heroes when I was a child who was fascinated by aircraft and the space program (which didn’t do much for my social life in elementary and high school…). Read his bio in HS and I recently re-read THE RIGHT STUFF (and I like the movie too). The first time I visited the Air & Space Museum in DC I just _had_ to see the X-1 which was on display.

    And don’t forget that there were three flight simulator games named after him. Played the first two as a teen and they were a blast.

    There will never be another one like him.

  7. P J Evans says:

    I was lucky enough to be at Edwards for the USAF 40th birthday airshow. It was opened by some retired general breaking the sound barrier in an F4. (Yes, it was Yeager! I think he *owned* the sound barrier by then.)

  8. Tetrault says:

    I was born at Edwards AFB in 1950. My father was a mere fighter pilot. We lived three doors down from Yeager. My mom verified the details of The Right Stuff in every particular.

  9. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Nicely done, bmaz. Thanks. The right stuff.

    But the WaPo needs a fact-checker. The article claimed that during Yeager’s record-breaking October 1947 flight, his airspeed was “nearly 700 mph.” The figure is off by about 100 mph. The speed of sound in air at stap is about 767 mph. Yeager’s flight No. 50 was clocked at 807 mph at 45,000 ft.

    Tom Wolfe’s book, of course, has more detail about how dangerous that flying was, how much of an accomplishment, and how many people were involved. It had been the subject of years of international research and testing, which led to many crashes and dead pilots, until the aerodynamics of near supersonic flight were more fully understood.

    As Wolfe points out, it gave new life to the acronym, BBR – burned beyond recognition. The film gives a hint of that when the newbie asks what it took for a pilot to have his picture put on the wall of that bar. “Footless halls of air” and “delirious burning blue” indeed. Thanks, again, bmaz.


    • bmaz says:

      The early instability problems was one of the most harrowing stories in Wolfe’s book. Paraphrasing from a book I have not read since maybe 80-81, but it had Yeager’s plane flailing so wildly that it almost came apart. How he survived that is miraculous. Also, Tom Wolfe is one hell of a writer.

      • Chetnolian says:

        Lovely stuff bmaz.

        One of the great heroes, and a good example of the “old pilots and bold pilots” saw. Everything he did was carefully planned and executed. He never took a risk he had not assessed.

        The story of Yeager was one of the factors which took me into the sphere of aviation, though my participation was very largely earthbound, except in a long metal tube as self-loading cargo of course.

        A truly great man from a time when it was possible to excel at technology without wondering about all the downsides.

        • bmaz says:

          Yes, me too! I actually went and took flying lessons and got my certificate a couple of years later. Only really flew Cessnas, not supersonic jets, but the old adage about the joy of flying is pretty true. Jeebus that was a long time ago now. My cert expired sometime mid to late 90s, and I never went back to it. There are a lot of things that can go wrong up there on your own, and if you don’t do it regularly enough, you are a liability, and I was not flying often enough. Which reminds me, I still miss that Anzio Landing restaurant we first met at at Falcon Field.

          • Chetnolian says:

            Me too, though I also miss the garden at the House of Tricks. Maybe after Covid…..
            Of course while I was briefly, and too late in life learning to fly I flew into Falcon Field once in a Cherokee

            • bmaz says:

              Cherokees are sweet, though never got rated on one. House of Tricks patio is still probably tenable (flying here from across the pond not so much), though they only open for dinner at 4pm now according to the Google machine.

          • madwand says:

            “There are a lot of things that can go wrong up there on your own, and if you don’t do it regularly enough, you are a liability” very smart, everyday in the US a small aircraft has an accident/incident and about every 5th day a helicopter has the same. What that means is that “Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, its is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect.” I had that sign on my wall next to the door and glanced at it every day on the way out the door to work.

            For all those interested, here’s the page in the FAA data where you can find this information, mostly only professionals or those with an interest ever visit here.


          • Alan Charbonneau says:

            “There are a lot of things that can go wrong up there on your own, and if you don’t do it regularly enough, you are a liability,…”

            Things that can go wrong include weather. I remember when the first person to fly 2x the speed of sound, Scott Crossfield, died after flying into thunderstorms.

            “…Crossfield, 84, had received several weather briefings leading up to the crash. Before departing, he discussed the weather with an acquaintance and mentioned that he ‘might need to work his way around some weather, but it did not look serious.’”

            That “not too serious” weather ripped his plane to shreds — debris from his plane was found in “three different locations within a quarter mile, suggesting that the plane broke up while it was still in the air”.

            RIP to both men.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          Good points the film obscured. It made Yeager and Jack Ridley into great, but intuitive, seat-of-the-pants pilots. It turns out that Yeager was accepted as a test pilot on the strength of his experience in aviation mechanics as well as his flying ability.

          And Jack Ridley – the guy who thought to use a cut broomstick to close the hatch and who kept loaning Yeager a stick of Beemans – had a masters from CalTech.

      • Chetnolian says:

        Indeed. Yeager was a bit like Lewis Hamilton is now. We see the exciting driving, but all the reports say his strength is at least as much in his understanding of the precise mechanics of what he is driving. The technical bit is vital but a bit boring for the mere watcher (or indeed filmmaker looking for a story simple enough to go onto the screen)..

        • bmaz says:

          Indeed. And that is far too much a lost art in motor racing. My own initial portal into F1 was well known for knowing the mechanics of the cars he was driving as well or better than his actual mechanics. To the point of even leaping out of his car and doing/supervising the wrenching himself. That kind of thing is mostly a thing of the past. It is also what makes Lewis so able to protect the machinery and get it to the finish so often.

  10. punaise says:

    Another baseball great gone: RIP Dick Allen – slugger who got a bad rap for being “difficult” when he was really just outspoken about racial issues.

    “Dick was a sensitive Black man who refused to be treated as a second-class citizen,” Schmidt said in a speech. “He played in front of home fans that were products of that racist era [with] racist teammates and different rules for whites and Blacks. Fans threw stuff at him, and thus Dick wore a batting helmet throughout the whole game. They yelled degrading racial slurs. They dumped trash in his front yard at his home. In general, he was tormented, and it came from all directions. And Dick rebelled.”

    • P J Evans says:

      A little trouble there at the end, but otherwise not bad. (It did hit the center of the landing area.)

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