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Chuck Yeager, test pilot who first broke sound barrier, dies at age 97

Yeager's exploits are depicted in the book and movie The Right Stuff.

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Chuck Yeager has died at the age of 97.

Kim Kulish/Corbis via Getty Images

Gen. Chuck Yeager, an Air Force test pilot who became the first human to break the sound barrier, died Monday at the age of 97.

His death was announced in a message on his official Twitter account, attributed to Yeager's wife, actress Victoria Scott D'Angelo.

"It is w/ profound sorrow, I must tell you that my life love General Chuck Yeager passed just before 9pm ET," she tweeted. "An incredible life well lived, America's greatest Pilot, & a legacy of strength, adventure, & patriotism will be remembered forever."

An Air Force captain at the time, Yeager made aviation history at the age 24 when he became the first human to break the sound barrier in 1947. Yeager's exploits were chronicled in Tom Wolfe's 1979 book and the 1983 film The Right Stuff, which recounts the early days of the US space program, but Yeager never flew in space.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine called Yeager's passing "a tremendous loss" to the nation and said Yeager's "pioneering and innovative spirit advanced America's abilities in the sky and set our nation's dreams soaring into the jet age and the space age."

Charles "Chuck" Elwood Yeager was born Feb. 13, 1923 in Myra, West Virginia. He began his military career in 1941, enlisting out of high school in the US Army Air Forces. Serving initially as an aircraft mechanic, he became a fighter ace in World War II, shooting down five German planes on a single mission.

Yeager stayed in the Air Force after the war ended, becoming a test pilot at Muroc Army Air Field in California (now known as Edwards Air Force Base).  He gained worldwide notoriety when the Bell X-1 he was piloting reached a speed of 700 miles per hour, Mach 1.06, at 43,000 feet above Edwards Air Force Base in California on Oct. 14. 1947.

The plane was nicknamed Glamorous Glennis after Yeager's first wife. With his flight, the era of supersonic aviation was born.  But at the time, the achievement was classified as top secret and the Air Force wouldn't confirm the supersonic flight until June 1948. His X-1 is on display at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

In the fall of 1953, Yeager set another world speed record when he piloted the X-1A to Mach 2.44, nearly two and a half times the speed of sound. But during this flight, he lost control of his aircraft at 80,000 feet due to a phenomenon largely unknown at the time called inertia coupling. His plane dropped more than 50,000 feet before he was able to regain control.

In 1962, at the rank of full colonel, Yeager was named the first commander of the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards, which trained prospective astronauts. Yeager himself was ineligible to be an astronaut because he had only a high school education.

During the Vietnam War, Yeager commanded a fighter wing and accrued 414 hours of combat time in 127 missions, mainly in Martin B-57 light bombers.

Yeager was promoted to brigadier general in 1969 and retired from the Air Force in 1975, after more than three decades of active duty. Yeager was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1973 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan in 1985.

His personal decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Bronze Star.

In later years, Yeager appeared in TV commercials promoting defense company Northrop and the car parts company ACDelco. He's portrayed in the movie The Right Stuff by actor Sam Shepard but makes a cameo appearance as a bartender at the legendary Happy Bottom Riding Club.

Glennis Yeager died in 1990 of ovarian cancer. Together, they had four children: Susan, Don, Mickey and Sharon. He married his second wife, D'Angelo, in 2003.