Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager at Ramstein Air Base in July, 1969.

Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager at Ramstein Air Base in July, 1969. ()

RAMSTEIN AB Germany (S&S) — Twenty-two years ago, on Oct. 14, 1947, an Air Force captain named Charles Yaeger became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound. When he landed his experimental rocket-powered craft, the Bell X-1, there were no television cameras or telephone calls from the President.

In fact, because of security considerations, his 600-to-700 mile per hour flight was not even announced until the spring of 1948.

Last week Yeager, now a brigadier general and 17th Air Force vice-commander here, was one of an estimated 500 million people who watched Neil Armstrong and "Buzz" Aldrin land on the moon. To escape the earth's gravitational field the Apollo 11 spacecraft had to attain a speed of more than 24,200 miles an hour — almost 35 times as fast as Yeager's stubby winged X-1 went on its record-breaking flight in 1947.

Yeager, who "like everybody else" watched the Apollo flight at home, feels that a big difference between his early rocket-powered flights and the Apollo program is that "the astronauts put their lives in the hands of complex mechanical systems and computers instead of relying solely on personal skills."

"Today," Yeager told the Stars and Stripes, "you've got to have faith in your equipment." Either things haven't really changed that much, or Yeager had the same faith in his test pilot days — his X-1 had no ejection system. "That's true," he says, smiling, "but I did have a parachute."

Michael Collins, who piloted the Apollo 11 command module while Armstrong and Aldrin explored the lunar surface, was a student at the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School when Yeager was commandant there.

"He didn't really stand out from the others," Yeager recalled. "Everybody there was pretty outstanding."

"One time, though, he was having trouble with his F104 and probably should have bailed out. He didn't, and although the landing gear was pretty well wiped out, we had a chance to find out what went wrong with the plane."

It might seem that a man used to working on the edge of the unknown, a man who broke the sound barrier and then in 1953 piloted an X-1A to a speed of over 1,600 miles an hour to become the "world's fastest human" would not like to be on the outside looking in while man conquers the moon.

"I'm sure all of us have an innate desire to explore," Meager said. "But it takes more than this to be an astronaut. My training was for supersonic flight; spaceflight requires a different type of training and education."

"After a while," he continued, "you realize you've had your day and it's time to let some younger people take over."

One of Yeager's sons has just been released from the Army after a tour in Vietnam; the other recently enlisted in the Air Force. Neither, at present, has any plans to be "the world's fastest human" or "the first man on Mars," Yeager notes with relief.

"It's hard to try to follow someone's footsteps," he says. "It puts a lot of pressure on you. Anyway, a lot of achievements are just being in the right place at the right time."

A lot of scientific pioneers who made contributions over the years — direct and indirect — to the ultimate success of the Apollo mission weren't around to see the fruits of their labor last week; but the man who showed other men that they could go faster than the speed of sound was.

The type of technology that put men on the moon is evident every time the man who broke the sound barrier climbs into an F4 Phantom that travels twice as fast as the venerable X-1.

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