United States Air Force Capt. Chuck Yeager stands beside the plane in which he became the first pilot to break the sound barrier, 1947.
United States Air Force Capt. Chuck Yeager stands beside the plane in which he became the first pilot to break the sound barrier, 1947.U.S. Air Force
United States Air Force Capt. Chuck Yeager stands beside the plane in which he became the first pilot to break the sound barrier, 1947.
United States Air Force Capt. Chuck Yeager stands beside the plane in which he became the first pilot to break the sound
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Chuck Yeager: World's First Supersonic Man

Oct 13, 2014

Aviation records are made to be broken—even when the person breaking the record is outside of an aircraft. For example, when Felix Baumgartner stepped out of a balloon gondola 128,000 feet above the surface of the earth in October 2012, he not only set the record for the highest free fall, but also became the first person to break the sound barrier with his own body—traveling at around 840 mph, or well over Mach 1, without the benefit, and relative safety, of a vehicle.

But only history will tell if Baumgartner's astonishing achievement—indeed, his multiple achievements—will ultimately be mentioned in the same breath as other landmark "firsts" in flight: the Wright bothers, or Armstrong on the moon, or Chuck Yeager's Oct. 14, 1947, adventure in the aircraft he nicknamed Glamorous Glennis, after his wife. That was the day the 24-year-old Air Force captain and test pilot flew a rocket-powered Bell-X1 airplane faster than the speed of sound. Yeager and his plane were drop-launched from the bomb bay of a modified B-29 Superfortress bomber, and passed Mach 1 at an altitude of around 45,000 feet.

Yeager (portrayed by Sam Shepard in The Right Stuff) went on to set all sorts of other aviation records; was a highly decorated combat pilot; and is generally regarded as one of a small handful of the most accomplished humans to ever wedge himself into the cockpit of a plane. But it's as "the world's first supersonic man" that the retired brigadier general is now, and forever will be, most widely remembered. Here, on the anniversary of that milestone 1947 flight, LIFE.com pays tribute to Charles Elwood Yeager—an unconquerable American original.

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