• Thom Patterson

Aviation Legend Chuck Yeager Remembers Breaking the Sound Barrier

Updated: Dec 9, 2020

Editor's note: Eight years before his death this week at age 97, famed test pilot Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager recalled what it was like becoming the first human to break the sound barrier. 
Yeager spoke with CNN's Thom Patterson in 2012 about his days at California's Edwards Air Force Base and shared his thoughts on space tourism. Below is an edited transcript. 

YEAGER PICKS UP THE PHONE: "Yeager!"

THOM PATTERSON: "Thank you very much for your time today."

GEN. YEAGER: "No sweat.  Most guys who call me say, 'What are you famous for.' (laughs) I hang up."

THOM PATTERSON: "What do you remember about Edwards Air Force Base" (formerly known as Muroc)?

GEN. YEAGER: "Let me tell you some of the bad things. Muroc Air Base was staffed by the dregs of the Air Force -- back in '45, '46. We were sent out from (Ohio's) Wright Field to do test work and those guys wouldn't give you the time of day. And even when I was flying the X-1 over there, I could not get any support whatsoever. They were just a bunch of jealous people. Now that you understand my attitude, Muroc Air Base was a sorry place until Gen. (Albert) Boyd moved out there after the X-1 and straightened it up."

THOM PATTERSON: "Speaking of the X-1, tell me about that night after you broke the barrier. Did you celebrate at the pilot hangout they used to call the Happy Bottom Riding Club?"

GEN. YEAGER: "The mission was classified when we got it above Mach 1. Gen. Boyd said, 'OK this is classified you can't talk about it. You can't celebrate.' And that put an end to everything. (laughs)

"When we did get it above Mach 1, well obviously it made us very happy because we'd done something the rest of the world had been trying to do for years. What it did, it put America ahead of the rest of the world -- the British, the French, the Soviet Union -- on technology. 

"I felt good about it, naturally because I'd done what the old man had sent us out to do. That's just about the end of it. 

"After six months when the Air Force finally leaked it out, we started to celebrate somewhat. But by then the newness had worn off and then we were talking about Mach II and 2 and a half --  and things like that."

THOM PATTERSON: "Have you been to Edwards recently to visit the spot where the club burned down?"

GEN. YEAGER: "We've been out there they have a party once a year and they go out there and they fix it all up and get some platforms and have a barbeque and most of the base comes out. You go out there and you look at the swimming pool and you think back over the years and you think about [Happy Bottom owner] Pancho [Barnes] and her husband Mac McKendry and some of the people who used to come out there.

"When I was flying the X-1 I was only getting $260 a month. The way we looked at it, duty was our guideline that's the way we all flew in the military."

But I'm not one of those who spends a hell of a lot of time thinking about old stuff. 

THOM PATTERSON: "Back in the day, did you enjoy the outdoors during your time at Edwards?"

YEAGER: "We fished a lot in the High Sierras for golden trout. And we also hunted for quail over in Antelope Valley in back of Lancaster. We hunted a lot of dove. I used to take my two boys outside the house there in the evening and a dove would fly by and I'd shoot them and they'd pick them up and then (his late wife) Glynnis would cook them. It was good eating.

"Glynnis and I did a lot of horseback riding at Pancho's because Pancho had some good horses."

THOM PATTERSON: "Last month, you served as Grand Marshal of the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington. How do you feel about the way admirers respond to you?"

YEAGER: "They all know your name and they yell at you and cheer and things like that. And I feel really good about it because they honor what you did. And that's the way they look at it. And they're proud of you and they show that reaction when you go by. 

"I haven't changed. And I think that's one thing that the people appreciate. I was in a convertible and people were just really going ape, you know, cheering and saying my name and I was really proud that they would do that. But they never forget you, that's the main thing."

THOM PATTERSON: "How strong is your interest these days in aviation achievements?"

YEAGER: "Well, basically there's not a hell of a lot going on because we got the F-15 and the F-16 and now we've got a Joint Strike Fighter coming that looks to me like it's going to break the budget." (laughs) 

THOM PATTERSON: "Are you still excited about what's going on in aircraft design and the ability to push the envelope?"

GEN. YEAGER: "There's a limit to what they can do. The main thing is you have new airplanes coming, but it's still the same old weapons systems that destroy the enemy. That's the way you look at it. And there's not an awful lot of new stuff that's mind boggling.

(Commercial spacecraft designer) "Burt Rutan -- that to me is a bunch of crap trying to shoot guys up into damned space. What they're going to do is they're going to wipe out half a dozen [people] one of these days and that will be the end of it."

THOM PATTERSON: "Are you talking about space tourism companies like Virgin Galactic which are planning to offer private civilians soon short rides to the edge of space?"

GEN. YEAGER: "That's what I mean. One of these days there's going to be a catastrophe. And then that will put an end to it."

THOM PATTERSON: "What aviation figures are your heroes?"

GEN. YEAGER: "Well Gen. [Jimmy] Doolittle was my hero when I was a young pilot because he was something else.

"I ran the astronaut school for six years and I was the commandant and when I finished in '65, 26 of my guys went into space as NASA astronauts that I trained. 

"The Air Force was very much involved in space and the astronaut program. 

"But then [President Lyndon Johnson] and some other politicians said we've got to keep the military out of space because if we don't keep them out of space the damned Russians will start building space weapons systems  -- which is a kind of stupid analogy. So they closed our school down, transferred everything to NASA and it was a bureaucratic mess ever since."

THOM PATTERSON: "I want to ask you about the recent successful unmanned SpaceX mission to the International Space Station. What do you think about the future of commercial space exploration?"  

GEN. YEAGER: "I don't believe there are too many big breakthroughs left in the space program. What do we gain out of it?"

THOM PATTERSON: "Is it better for the government to run it or private industry?"

GEN. YEAGER: "It's a good place for the government to spend money. That's the way I'd put it."

Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager (U.S. Air Force Photo)

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