How a horse nearly threw Chuck Yeager off his course

Published 8:22 am Saturday, December 19, 2020

I ran across some notes I had written as I listened to Chuck Yeager and Bob Hoover at the EAA convention in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, on July 30, 1997.
The pair had flown P-51s in WWII in the same squadron. They told about some of the antics that they did in practice flights, but in this column, I just tell you more about Yeager.
He said the Bell X-1 rocket plane had a stall speed of 192 knots when empty of fuel and 250 knots when fueled.
Of course, the B-29 carrying it aloft had to go above the higher stall speed when it was released. The B-29 top speed was 304 knots.
Yeager and Hoover were great friends of Jack Ridley, who was a mechanical engineer who was one of the chief designers of the Bell X-1. They, through experiments, knew that when the shock wave at 0.94 mach approached the elevator hinge, the pilot could control the airplane, but when it passed over the hinge line, the pilot lost control which caused a British pilot to crash. They reasoned that if the whole horizontal stabilizer was moved to control the climbing or descending, they could control the plane.
Ridley came up with the design, using a jack screw powered by nitrogen pressure from a cylinder, to control the angle of the stabilizer.
Yeager had great confidence in Ridley.
This is a quote from him: “I trusted Jack with my life. He was the only person on earth who could have kept me from flying the X-1. As committed as I was to the program, and with all that was riding on these flights, if Jack had said, ‘Chuck, if you fly that thing, you’re not going to make it,’ that would have been it for yours truly.”
The test pilots who make these break-throughs should get a lot of credit, but the engineers who design and put their reputations on the line, rarely even get mentioned. I suspect that none of the readers of this column have ever heard of Ridley.
There was a page-long obituary of Chuck Yeager in the British magazine, The Economist and it told the story of his broken ribs.
From all the accounts, and listening to him in 1997, this is the story as I pieced it together.
He and his wife, Glennis, were racing home on horseback from an evening at Pancho’s Barnes’ “Happy Bottom Riding Club” bar when they came upon a closed gate which was usually open.
The horse stopped and Yeager didn’t.
He said he experienced a 4G fall that cracked a couple of ribs.
It was very painful, I know, as I have been there.
Yeager was scheduled to fly the Bell X-1 rocket plane in a couple of days.
He said that he knew a veterinarian who taped him up to alleviate some of the pain.
He didn’t want to go to an Air Force doctor, since he would have probably grounded him.
Here Ridley is mentioned again, Yeager told Ridley who fashioned broom stick to assist him in closing the canopy.
The rest is history as this hillbilly from Hamlin, West Virginia-area, with only a high school education who had to learn on his own about aerodynamics and then piloting, flew the Bell X-1 to new speed records.

Don Lee, a pilot flying out of Lawrence County Airport since 1970, has been in charge of equipment and grounds maintenance for the last several years. He can be reached at

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