Breaking the sound barrier is a remarkable feat, yet when people are asked to list people who have achieved it most will likely say Felix Baumgartner or more recently Paul Allen of Google. Few people seem to have heard of Charles Yeager – the first man to successfully travel faster than the speed of sound in 1947. As the theme of this issue of the Manchester Historian is exploration, this article will look at who Charles Yeager was and why you should know about him.

Charles Yeager with Jackie Cochran - the first woman to break the sound barrier from Wikimedia Commons.

Yeager was born in 1923 in Virginia, United States and after the outbreak of the Second World War, Yeager signed up to the US Air Force. During this time he demonstrated an outstanding ability as a pilot, despite admitting to not feeling too well on his first experiences of flying.Overall, Yeager flew 61 missions for America during the Second World War as well as being promoted to captain. After the war, he was chosen as the man to attempt and ultimately succeed in breaking the sound barrier.


Yeager’s achievement is made even more impressive because on October 12th 1947, two days before the scheduled attempt, Yeager fell off a horse;as a result, the first man to break the speed barrier did so with two broken ribs! He broke the speed barrier on October 14th 1947 flying a Bell X1 and travelling at an altitude of an eye-watering 45,000 feet. Yeager was awarded the Mackay trophy, awarded for the most meritorious flight of the year by the US Air Force, and the Collier Trophy, awarded to those who have made a significant contribution to aerospace development.


In 1953, Yeager was the wingman for Jackie Cochran who became the first woman to break the sound barrier. He continued to work with the US Air Force until his retirement in 1975, becoming Colonel and Brigadier General. Instead of relaxing during his retirement, in 2012 to celebrate 65 years since breaking the sound barrier, he did it again at the astonishing age of 89!


As a result of his achievements Yeager has accrued numerous accolades and awards, the main ones being: inducted to the National Aviation Hall of Fame and a silver non combat medal by former president Gerald Ford for his contributions to aerospace science. So overall, although many may not be aware who Charles Yeager is, he is described by many as one of the greatest pilots ever, he broke new grounds in aerospace technology and risked his life in achieving the monumental feat of breaking the sound barrier.