Charles "Chuck" Yeager, the first pilot to break the speed of sound and survive, died Monday night, his wife, Victoria, announced on Twitter. He was 97.
Yeager eventually became the first person to fly at 2.5 times the speed of sound, but he entered the history books on Oct. 14, 1947, when he flew an experimental Bell X-1 test jet over California's Mojave Desert at nearly 700 miles per hour, breaking the sound barrier. He was secretly flying with several broken ribs after he and his first wife went drinking then rode horses at night days earlier, The Washington Post reports, but Yeager wrote in his 1985 autobiography that once you got past Mach 1, physically the ride "was a smooth as a baby's bottom."
Yeager was born in rural Hamlin, West Virginia, in 1923. "Although not a distinguished student, Chuck Yeager excelled in geometry and used his talents to become an excellent pool hustler," the Post reports. "Like his father, he also showed great skill in mechanics and as a teen was able to take apart and reassemble a car engine." The younger Yeager enlisted in the Army Air Forces during World War II, right out of high school. He was credited with shooting down at least 12 German planes, but was also shot down himself during his eighth mission, slowly making his way from Nazi-occupied France down to British forces in Gibraltar.
Yeager joined the X-1 project at Muroc Field in California, now Edwards Air Force Base, after World War II. He won the assignment to break Mach 1 after the civilian test pilot who had been flying the experimental plane demanded a $150,000 bonus. The head of test flights, Col. Albert Boyd, also called Yeager "the best instinctive pilot I ever saw," a quality that probably helped him survive when other pilots died trying to break the sound barrier.
Yeager retired from the Air Force in 1975 as a decorated brigadier general, though he was given the honorary rank of major general in 2005. President Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985. Yeager's flights helped with the creation of the U.S. space program, but he said he would not have qualified for the astronaut program himself, had he been interested, because he lacked a college degree. "I was probably the last guy who will get to do the kind of flying I did," Yeager said in 2002, when he broke the sound barrier for his final time.