The “nation’s greatest aviator” took his final fight home to West Virginia on Friday.
Charles “Chuck” Elwood Yeager, who grew up in the tiny town of Hamlin in Lincoln County, was the first known pilot in history to have broken the sound barrier in 1947.
In October 2012, at the age of 89, he did it as a co-pilot.
Yeager died on Dec. 7, after having achieved international recognition and inspiring generations of pilots and astronauts.
The state’s hero landed for the last time in the Mountain State, escorted home by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence aboard Air Force Two.
Pence eulogized Yeager as “our nation’s greatest aviator” during a memorial service Friday at the Charleston Visitors’ and Convention Center.
“The truth is, Chuck Yeager has been an inspiration to every American pilot and will be, throughout time,” Pence said. “The cockpit of Air Force Two told me this morning, before we took off from Andrews Air Force Base, how deeply honored they were to have the privilege to carry Gen. Chuck Yeager on his last flight back home to West Virginia.”
Pence said Yeager had inspired three generations of pilots within his own family. When Pence’s son was a little boy, he and his wife, Karen Pence, hung a poem above his bed.
The vice president recited the poem for Yeager on Friday.
“‘Oh I have slipped the surly bonds of earth...,’” Pence quoted.
“As America bids farewell to our nation’s greatest aviator, the words seem altogether fitting.
“I believe they are reflective, the prayer of millions of Americans on this day, as we think about that day that Gen. Yeager broke the last barrier and stepped into eternity and the indelible memory of the American people.”
Pence said Yeager was an inspiration as a pilot and as a Christian witness.
“Chuck Yeager was a great man,” Pence said. “The Bible tells us to mourn with those who mourn and grieve with those who grieve.
“We do not grieve like those who have no hope because our faith gives us hope, and heroes give us hope — hope for today and hope for tomorrow.
“May God continue to bless the United States of America,” Pence later added.
The Yeager family, including Yeager’s widow, Victoria, were present. Friends and others remembered Yeager in a recorded memorial tribute that was played at his service.
Born in February 1923 in Myra, Yeager moved to Hamlin with his family at age 5.
He loved to hunt, a childhood friend at the service recalled, and his friends called him “Aristotle” because of his strong curiosity and desire to understand things.
He showed a strong interest in mechanics from a young age.
After graduating from Hamlin High School in 1961, Yeager enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces as a flight mechanic and began a 30-year career in the U.S. military, flying P-51s on the western front in Europe during World War II.
After the war, he became a test pilot and broke the sound barrier with an experimental Bell X-1 plane at Mach 1.
On Dec. 12, 1953, Yeager flew two and a half times the speed of sound in a Bell X-1A, setting a second record.
“At Mach 2.4 at 80,000 feet the aircraft spun out of control, spinning on all 3 axes. G-forces sent Yeager’s head into the canopy, cracking it and bending the control stick,” the website ChuckYeager.org reports.
“The aircraft spun down 51,000 feet in 51 seconds before he regained control at 25,000 feet.”
Yeager flew a total of 64 combat missions and reached the rank of brigadier general before his 1975 retirement.
He continued to fly. On the 65th anniversary of racing past the speed of sound, Yeager did it again in October 2012, as the co-pilot of a McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle.
“For me, Chuck Yeager is the sound of freedom,” said John Nicolleti, public relations officer for Habitat for Humanity, in a recorded memorial tribute at the Friday service.
Actress Barbara Eden of “I Dream of Jeanie” fame, the Oak Ridge Boys and a childhood friend from Hamlin were among those who honored Yeager.
Yeager figured in “The Right Stuff,” writer Tom Clancy’s novel about test pilots who were selected for NASA’s Project Mercury, the first human space flight.
In a 1983 film by the same name, actor Sam Shepard portrayed Yeager and actress Barbara Hershey played Yeager’s first wife, Glennis.
Hershey spoke at Yeager’s memorial service. She humorously recalled Yeager telling her that Glennis did not become emotional but that she sometimes threw things.
Yeager and Glennis had four children, and Yeager called many of his planes “Glamorous Glennis” in honor of his first wife, who passed away in 1990.
In 2000, Yeager married Victoria D’Angelo, an actress he met on a California trail during a hike. Victoria was 36 years his junior.
“Don’t any of you ever forget — don’t let your children, your grandchildren, your great-grandchildren, on down the line — who this man is, who he was and all that he has done,” said Victoria Yeager at the memorial.