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Remembering Chuck Yeager, first person to break the sound barrier

The first man to break the sound barrier, Chuck Yeager died on Monday in California at the age of 97. John Yang has the story.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally tonight: The first man to break the sound barrier, Chuck Yeager, died Monday in California.

    John Yang has our remembrance.

  • Man:

    A man has flown an airplane faster than the speed of sound.

  • John Yang:

    Chuck Yeager soared into aviation history in 1947, the first person to break the sound barrier. The achievement in the Glamorous Glennis, named for his wife, was a long-sought breakthrough. He recalled it in a 2012 interview.

  • Chuck Yeager:

    Up until that time, we'd never been able to get above the speed of sound. We had problems with controls and stuff like that. And, finally, on October the 14th, '47, we succeeded in pushing through the Mach 1, and opened up space to us.

  • John Yang:

    Born and raised in West Virginia, Chuck Yeager enlisted in the Army Air Corps in September 1941, when he was 18, just before the Pearl Harbor attack plunged the United States into World War II.

    He became a P-51 fighter pilot and distinguished himself in aerial combat over France and Germany. At one point, he was shot down, but escaped capture and returned to the skies. After the war, Yeager became a military test pilot, trying out new prototypes.

    In 2006, he described for West Virginia Public Broadcasting how he ended up in experimental rocket-powered aircraft.

  • Chuck Yeager:

    They put me in the fighter test section. I flew everything it flew.

    Then I was given the opportunity to go to the test pilot school in January of '46, which I did, became a test pilot. And then I started working on test programs, was selected for the X-1 and other test programs.

  • John Yang:

    The next year, after several prep flights, Yeager and his Bell X-1 dropped from the belly of a B-29 bomber and rocketed past the sound barrier, at nearly 700 miles an hour.

  • Chuck Yeager:

    Everything that I did, it was my duty. It was all important. The sound barrier was just another program. I was working on 10 test programs when I was flying the X-1.

  • John Yang:

    The secret flight was finally announced to the world eight months later, June 1948. He instantly skyrocketed to fame.

    Ironically, though, he was passed over for the space program a decade later. NASA required the first astronauts have college degrees. Yeager had never gone to college. Even so, he went on to command fighter squadrons in Germany and Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, and was promoted to brigadier general.

    Yeager was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1973, and retired from the Air Force in 1975. In 1979, he gained new international celebrity with the publication of Tom Wolfe's bestselling book "The Right Stuff," later made into a movie. He was portrayed by actor Sam Shepard.

    After the Challenger explosion in 1986, he served on the commission that investigated the disaster. He also worked as a consulting test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California, and traveled abroad, visiting U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

    2012 marked the 65th anniversary of Yeager's supersonic flight, and, at age 89, he reenacted the achievement, flying with a pilot from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

    Afterward, he reflected on the indelible mark the military left on his life.

  • Chuck Yeager:

    What I am, I owe to the Air Force, because it took an 18-year-old kid out of West Virginia and taught me and made me what I was.

  • John Yang:

    Chuck Yeager lived out the final years of his life in Penn Valley, California.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A real American hero.

    Chuck Yeager was 97 years old.

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