Chuck Yeager, First Pilot to Fly Faster Than Sound, Flies West


Capt. Charles Elwood “Chuck” Yeager, February 13, 1923–December 7, 2020

A World War II fighter ace, Air Force general, and—according to author Tom Wolfe—“the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff” died on Monday, December 7, at the age of 97. Charles Elwood “Chuck” Yeager’s exploits inspired generations of pilots, having flown more than 300 types of aircraft in every country in the world and logging about 18,000 hours.

Born in 1923 in West Virginia, Yeager enlisted in the Army and became a fighter ace in World War II. Shot down over occupied France, he evaded capture and later became a U.S. Air Force test pilot at the very beginning of the jet age, allowing him to achieve the distinction of being the first pilot to officially break the sound barrier on October 14, 1947.

Tom Wolfe attributed the common voice of airline pilots to Yeager in his 1979 novel, The Right Stuff:

“Anyone who travels very much on airlines in the United States soon gets to know the voice of the airline pilot . . . coming over the intercom . . . with a particular drawl, a particular folksiness, a particular down-home calmness that is so exaggerated it begins to parody itself . . . the voice that tells you, as the airliner is caught in thunderheads and goes bolting up and down a thousand feet at a single gulp, to check your seat belts because ‘uh, folks, it might get a little choppy’ . . . Who doesn't know that voice! And who can forget it—even after he is proved right and the emergency is over. That particular voice may sound vaguely Southern or Southwestern, but it is specifically Appalachian in origin. It originated in the mountains of West Virginia, in the coal country, in Lincoln County, so far up in the hollows that, as the saying went, ‘They had to pipe in daylight.’ In the late 1940s and early 1950s this up-hollow voice drifted down from on high, from over the high desert of California, down, down, down, from the upper reaches of the [Pilot] Brotherhood into all phases of American aviation. It was amazing. It was Pygmalion in reverse. Military pilots and then, soon, airline pilots, pilots from Maine and Massachusetts and the Dakotas and Oregon and everywhere else, began to talk in that poker-hollow West Virginia drawl, or as close to it as they could bend their native accents. It was the drawl of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.”

ALPA is proud to honor the memory of Chuck Yeager and carry out his legacy as the voice of the airline flight deck. 

If you are interested in being the next voice of the skies, visit Cleared to Dream for information on becoming an airline pilot.

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