Today marks the 73rd Anniversary of Chuck Yeager’s Flight. The blog below was originally written in 2017
Recently we celebrated the 70th anniversary of Chuck Yeager’s breaking the sound barrier. I chronicled that event in the last blog Yeager, in his autobiography, was very clear that this was a team effort. This blog will highlight three of the key team members, what they contributed and what became of them.
Chuck Yeager was the chief test pilot. This selection was made by (then) Colonel Albert Boyd. The top brass in Washington DC had given Boyd free reign in the selection, but he definitely felt the pressure to get it right. Boyd commanded the Flight Section at Wright Field (now Wright-Patterson AFB) in Dayton Ohio. As a result he had a bird’s eye view of each man’s ability. Boyd’s selection of Yeager was risky on a couple of accounts.
First, Chuck Yeager did not possess a college degree. Most of the other pilots did. Secondly, Yeager was one of the newer test pilots in the unit, so experience was not on his side. What he did have was a keen sense of mechanical things, developed on the family property working on an old pickup truck. Yeager would frequently fix his own jet when it broke while he was away at air shows. His other plus was his extreme courage and calm in the face of adversity.
Yeager viewed Boyd as a father figure and had the utmost respect for him. He did not want “to let the old man down”. Following the historic flight, Boyd was eventually promoted to Major General. He retired from the Air Force in 1957. Before that day, Boyd had flown every single type of aircraft in the Air Force inventory. He commanded the experimental Test Pilot School, and was the first commander of the USAF Flight Test Center at Edwards AFB. Albert Boyd passed away in 1976 at the age of 69. Boyd is known as “The Father of Modern Flight Testing”.
Robert A. Hoover was Yeager’s back up pilot, friend, and partner in crime. The two were like two old school chums who got along famously. They would egg one another on in flight and in pranks. Yeager personally requested Hoover as his backup pilot with Colonel Boyd. Hoover once had to talk Yeager down for a blind landing in the Bell X-1. The canopy had frozen over so badly that Yeager could not see outside.
He left active duty in 1948 and began life as a test pilot for North American Aviation and instructor of military pilots. He set several aviation records. However, he made his real mark on the Air Show circuit flying a P-51 Mustang called, Ole Yeller. He flew into the 1990s.
One of the Doctor Aviation students met Hoover at Oshkosh several years ago. They have a great photo with the legend. Hoover passed away on October 25, 2016 at the age of 94.
Arguably the most important man in the entire venture, perhaps more important than Yeager himself, was Jackie Lynwood Ridley. Jack Ridley was a test pilot and a top flight test engineer. According to Yeager, Ridley possessed two important gifts. One, he was a very talented engineer. Two, unlike most really good engineers, he could break down and explain advanced engineer concepts into simple language.
Boyd handpicked Ridley to accompany Yeager, telling Ridley to stay at Yeager’s side. Boyd knew that Ridley could compensate for what Yeager lacked in formal education. There were many sessions where Ridley tutored Yeager after engineering meetings to ensure complete understanding on Yeager’s part.
Following the historic flight, Ridley was sent to Washington State to help with the Boeing B-47 Stratojet. Soon thereafter he was stationed at Muroc (soon to be Edwards) where he spent nearly a decade working on developing an entire generation of aircraft. His biggest contribution was creating standardized procedures for both testing and data reduction and publishing of test flight data. Many of these procedures are still in use today at the Flight Test Center.
Ridley was eventually promoted to Colonel. He was tragically killed in 1957 acting as the co-pilot on a C-47 that crashed into a snow covered mountain in Japan. The Mission Control Center at Edwards is named in his honor.
As often is the case, the pilot gets the fame for breaking the sound barrier. This was no small feat. However, this feat was made possible by Yeager’s coworkers, Albert Boyd, Bob Hoover and Jack Ridley. Ironically, only Yeager lived to see the 70th anniversary.