How Many Aircraft did Chuck Yeager Fly?

By Scott Spangler on December 14th, 2020

Obit Chuck YeagerLiving with an editor’s mindset is no easy thing, especially when faced with inconsistent “facts” in stories presented by different sources on a common topic. In this case it was the death of Chuck Yeager. Publicity throughout his life has made much of his signature aviation accomplishments, guiding the X-1 through the sonic barrier, surviving a high-altitude misadventure in the NF-104 Starfighter, but postings on his passing could not agree on how many different types of aircraft he flew or how many flight hours he’d logged.

This i-Quest started with the New York Times, the obituary gold standard. “Chuck Yeager, Test Pilot Who Broke the Sound Barrier, is Dead at 97” said “He flew more than 150 military aircraft, logging more than 10,000 hours in the air.” Like any curious aviation editor, I wanted to know what aircraft were on that list, beyond the ones I already knew about, the P-39, P-51, X-1, and F-104. Google offered me “About 3,474,000 results (0.75 seconds),” and that’s when the trouble began. parrots the Times’ obit word for word (including Richard Goldenstein’s byline), but the website does not provide a list of those “more than 150 military aircraft.” Scrolling through the site’s timeline of Yeager’s life, from his birth in 1923 to 1997, revealed some of them.

Republic XF-84Stationed at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, after the war, he flew the P-80 Shooting Star and P-84 Thunderjet. “He also evaluated the German and Japanese fighter aircraft brought back to the United States after the war.” I remember reading an article by Grumman test pilot Corwin “Corky” Meyer, who also flew these aircraft at Wright Field, and how the FW-190 influenced the F8F Bearcat.

Yeager commanded a number of squadrons during his career, but aside from the F-100 Super Saber, it didn’t’ identify what aircraft they flew. The timeline concludes with “AND BEYOND,” saying, “General Yeager has flown 201 types of military aircraft, and has more than 14,000 flying hours, with more than 13,000 of these in fighter aircraft.”

Several days after he died, Popular Mechanics published “The Eight Planes That Tell the Story of Chuck Yeager’s Career.” Among them is the Messerschmitt Me-262 jet. Yeager didn’t fly it, but he did shoot one down as it was on approach to landing with his P-51. During Vietnam, he commanded five different units that flew the F-100, F-102 Delta Dagger, and the F-4 Phantom, but the Martin B-57 Canberra was his predominant mount, and he logged 414 missions in it. At the end of this section of the article, PM says, “Yeager flew his final active-duty Air Force flight in 1975, by that time accumulating 10,131.6 flight hours in 361 different types of airplanes.”

The WarZone on The Drive told a similar story, “Chuck Yeager’s Amazing Life Told Through the Airplanes He Flew.” Like the Popular Mechanics article, it listed the Beech (18) AT-11 Kansan, which Yeager maintained after he enlisted in the Army. That he flew it seems to be an assumption. “It was onboard an AT-11 that Yeager got his first taste of flying and the airsickness he experienced sitting alongside the pilot made him, briefly, have second thoughts about a future career in the air.”

mig-15The story added the BT-13 and AT-6, which makes logical sense, as they were the basic and advanced training aircraft of the day. During a tour at Edwards Air Force Base during the Korean era, he went to Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa to fly a MiG-15 donated to the American cause by a North Korean defector. Command of an F-86 Sabre squadron followed.

bathtubBack in the world of flight test, the WarZone story revealed that Yeager was the first Air Force pilot to fly the NASA M2-F1 Flying Bathtub in 1963. He wanted to see if the wooden wingless lifting body would be a suitable trainer for the Aerospace Research Pilots School, aka the Air Force Test Pilot School. This raised my editorial hackles because the article didn’t answer the question it posed; did the school use the engineless bathtub as a lifting body trainer?

This article touched on the Northrop F-20 Tigershark that Yeager helped market to the world, and the F-15 he crewed for a celebrity flight celebrating the 50th anniversary of his sound-breaking flight in the X-1.

Searching the online National Museum of the USAF revealed nothing more than a long list of artifacts in its collection, from photos, to the flight suit he wore on his historic X-1 flight, to that MiG-15 he flew in Okinawa.

I saved Wikipedia for last, sure that some dedicated aviation history geek would have researched and listed all of the aircraft Yeager flew during his career. But there was no joy. While the entry highlighted those already known, this is all it said, “Throughout his life, he flew more than 360 different types of aircraft.” There wasn’t any attribution for this, not even a footnote. Bummer. Living with an editor’s mindset is no easy thing. – Scott Spangler, Editor


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2 Responses to “How Many Aircraft did Chuck Yeager Fly?”

  1. Joe Sesto Says:

    Last week I read an article about Yeager written by an auto writer involving Corvettes. Yeager drove the Indy Pace Car a couple of times in the ‘80s. She visited Yeager at his home in NorCal as I recall and she got a couple of his autographed photos, one was of him in an F16 the other was with the F20 Firehawk, which Yeager told her was his favorite fighter. You could possibly google…yeager corvette pace car…and find it. It was a very light hearted piece. The way she got the photos from his wife at their front door was strange.

  2. Dick Fischer Says:

    Scott, With regard to your Dec. 14 Chuck Yeager article, I believe I can add something to your question of whether or not The Air Force Test Pilot’s School used the lifting body as a trainer.

    The short answer is: No, the TPS did not. Yeager had hoped to do something along that line, but it never came to fruition.

    Both NASA and Air Force pilots flew the later, rocket powered lifting bodies in the combined test program. The first few pilots each flew the light weight lifting body a couple of flights as a precursor to flying the heavier vehicles. But experience showed that air towing of the light weight version was probably more dangerous than air launching the heavy weights. So the light weight flights were discontirued. The last few NASA and USAF pilots to fly the heavyweights did not fly the lightweight.

    The M2-F1 (shown in the photo in your article) was the first, proof of concept, lifting body tested at the NASA Flight Research Center at Edwards. It was a lightly built wooden hull prototype which was towed to altitude much like a glider. Shown left to right in the photo are Thompson, Yeager, Peterson, and Don Mallick.

    The M2-F1 was built entirely with NASA funds – no USAF involvement initially. The M2-F1 was first flown by NASA pilot Milt Thompson. Second to fly it was NASA pilot Bruce Petersen.

    NASA envisioned a much grander follow on lifting body test program, along the lines of the then current X-15 project. To gain Air Force interest in a joint Lifting Body project, NASA Center Director Paul Bikle invited his old friend Chuck Yeager to come over and fly the M2-F1. Bickle thought very highly of Yeager’s flying skills. Thus Yeager was the third pilot to fly the M2-F1.

    Yeager must have been impressed by the lifting body. While NASA-USAF pursued a course of heavier weight, rocket powered lifting bodies, Yeager proposed construction of one or more jet engine powered lifting bodies to be used as trainers in the TPS curriculum.

    There were three basic rocket powered lifting body configurations chosen for transonic testing, with a few more variations evolving from the basic three later on. The initial three lifting bodies were the M2-F2, HL-10 and the SV-5 (later called X-24). With Yeager’s support, USAF funded construction of two extra SV-5 vehicles, but this time with jet engines for ground takeoff. These two were called, “SV-5J”.

    The SV-5J airframes were constructed, but never flown.

    I was a junior engineer at Flight Research Center, arriving shortly after the first flight of the F1. So I was not a party to early decision making, but did serve on the team from 1964 until the vehicle’s retirment. Many years later I was asked by Milt Thompson (then NASA Chief Engineer) to restore the F-1 as one of the only remaining original project participants. Since I too was retired by then, the restoration was done under contract. They paid me, but it was an honor that I may well have done without pay.

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