The Year in Review: In Memoriam

A look back at 2020

Jan. 1, 2020, dawned as the beginning of a new year — just like any other new year. But this past year was unlike any in living memory, and throughout the year, people started going above and beyond.
In this special series for Aerotech News and Review, we take a look back at 2020 — the year everything changed.

– Ed.

Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager

Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager, the first human to break the sound barrier, passed away Dec. 7, 2020, aged 97.

His death was announced, via Twitter, by his wife Victoria Yeager.

“It is w/ profound sorrow, I must tell you my life love General Chuck Yeager passed away just before 9pm ET,” Victoria said. “An incredible life well lived, America’s greatest Pilot & a legacy of strength, adventure, & patriotism will be remembered forever.”

While Yeager is best known in the Antelope Valley for breaking the sound barrier on Oct. 14, 1947, flying the Bell X-1, he began his military career in World War II as a private in the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1941. After serving as an aircraft mechanic, in September 1942 he entered enlisted pilot training and upon graduation was promoted to the rank of flight officer (the World War II U.S. Army Air Force equivalent to warrant officer), later achieving most of his aerial victories as a P-51 fighter pilot on the Western Front, where he shot down over 11 enemy aircraft.

After the war, Yeager became a test pilot of many types of aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., including experimental rocket-powered aircraft. As the first human to officially break the sound barrier, he flew the experimental Bell X-1 at Mach 1 and an altitude of 45,000 feet, for which he won both the Collier and Mackay trophies in 1948. He then went on to break several other speed and altitude records.

Yeager later commanded fighter squadrons and wings in Germany, as well as in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. In recognition of the outstanding performance ratings of those units, he was promoted to brigadier general in 1969.

In 1962, as a colonel, and after a year of study at the Air War College, Yeager became the first commandant of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards.

Yeager retired from the Air Force on March 1, 1975, at Norton Air Force Base, Calif., after more than 33 years on active duty. He did, however, continue to fly for the Air Force and NASA as a consulting test pilot at Edwards. Yeager’s three-war active duty flying career took him all over the world.

(Courtesy photo)

Tom Hilzendeger

Tom Hilzendeger, who made every day of the last 10 years of his life count as an advocate and supporter for veterans in need across the Antelope Valley, passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer.

Hilzendeger, a Vietnam War veteran, started a small classic car show a decade ago, creating the group Vets4Veterans and transforming it into a robust non-profit group in community support of veterans in need.

He died June 7, at the age of 70.

On hearing the announcement of Hilzendeger’s death, tributes, both official and unofficial, poured in on social media. The tributes came from city and state officials across the Antelope Valley, and friends, and mostly from the veterans that he supported with the efforts of the non-profit group. He remained proud that “nobody in the organization makes a dime from this. It all goes to the veterans.”

Hilzendeger wasn’t old enough to drink a beer legally when he served in a combat engineer unit that was attached to the 1st Air Cavalry Division in Vietnam.

Hilzendeger was honored earlier in 2020 as Palmdale’s Veteran of the Year, and received similar honors in 2019 from state Sen. Scott Wilk as 21st District Veteran of the Year. On Lancaster’s Blvd., Hilzendeger was honored with a banner as a Hometown Hero for Lancaster.

Vets4Veterans began in 2010 with a small classic car show hosted in the VA Veterans Center in Palmdale to raise some money for veterans causes, recalled Gerry Rice, a Vietnam combat veteran who ran a group therapy session for veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, one of the most recognized mental health challenges from armed service.

(Courtesy photo)

Doug Nelson

On Dec. 17, the Flight Test Museum Foundation announced the passing of Doug Nelson, founder of the Air Force Flight Test Museum.

During his tenure as museum director, Doug not only collected many of the artifacts in the museum’s archives, established the first site and Blackbird Airpark, conceived, designed and oversaw the construction of Century Circle at the Edwards Air Force Base West Gate, and oversaw the acquisition of the YC-15 prototype on display there.

“Doug Nelson’s legacy at the Flight Test Museum in the Antelope Valley is huge,” said Fred Johnson, a former museum director. “The world-class collection that is the core of the museum owes its existence to Doug’s persistence against daunting odds. Even if visitors to the museum may not realize it, they will forever be the beneficiaries of what he did to create the museum from scratch. I stand in awe of what Doug accomplished.”

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