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US test pilot who first broke sound barrier dies aged 97

Chuck Yeager was the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound in 1947.

Image: PA Images

CHARLES YEAGER, THE Second World War fighter pilot ace and test pilot who became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound in 1947, has died aged 97.

He died on Monday, his wife, Victoria Yeager, said on his Twitter account.

She wrote: “It is w/ profound sorrow, I must tell you that my life love General Chuck Yeager passed just before 9pm ET. An incredible life well lived, America’s greatest Pilot, & a legacy of strength, adventure, & patriotism will be remembered forever.”

Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine said Yeager’s death was “a tremendous loss” to America.

“Gen Yeager’s pioneering and innovative spirit advanced America’s abilities in the sky and set our nation’s dreams soaring into the jet age and the space age. He said, ‘You don’t concentrate on risks. You concentrate on results. No risk is too great to prevent the necessary job from getting done,’” Bridenstine added.

Yeager, who was from a small town in the hills of West Virginia, flew for more than 60 years, including piloting an X-15 to nearly 1,000mph in October 2002 at the age of 79.

“Living to a ripe old age is not an end in itself. The trick is to enjoy the years remaining,” he said in Yeager: An Autobiography.

“I haven’t yet done everything, but by the time I’m finished, I won’t have missed much,” he wrote.

“If I auger in (crash) tomorrow, it won’t be with a frown on my face. I’ve had a ball.”

On 14 October 1947, Yeager, then a 24-year-old captain, pushed an orange, bullet-shaped Bell X-1 rocket plane past 660mph to break the sound barrier – at that time, a daunting aviation milestone.

“Sure, I was apprehensive,” he said in 1968. “When you’re fooling around with something you don’t know much about, there has to be apprehension. But you don’t let that affect your job.”

The modest Yeager said in 1947 that he could have gone even faster had the plane carried more fuel. He said the ride was nice and “just like riding fast in a car”.

The pilot’s record-breaking feat was kept top secret for about a year when the world thought Britain had broken the sound barrier first.

“It wasn’t a matter of not having aeroplanes that would fly at speeds like this. It was a matter of keeping them from falling apart,” he said.

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Sixty-five years later to the minute, on October 14 2012, Yeager commemorated the feat by flying in the back seat of an F-15 Eagle as it broke the sound barrier at more than 30,000ft above California’s Mojave Desert.

His exploits were told in Tom Wolfe’s book ‘The Right Stuff’, and the 1983 film it inspired.

Among the flights he made after breaking the sound barrier was one on 12 December 1953, when he flew an X-1A to a record of more than 1,600mph.

He returned to combat during the Vietnam War, flying several missions a month in twin-engine B-57 Canberras, making bombing and strafing runs over South Vietnam.

He was also awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star, the Air Medal and the Purple Heart.

US President Harry S Truman awarded him the Collier air trophy in December 1948 for his breaking the sound barrier. He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985.

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