– Steve Hitchen
Controversial, arrogant, brilliant, heroic, opinionated, skilled, honest and dedicated. It is impossible to write an obituary of Brigadier General Charles Elwood "Chuck" Yeager without including all of these words, because he was all of those things.
America's hero of heroes, Yeager was also a very divisive character who carved his own unique way through life armed with unchained honesty that could shock even the most accepting of people when it was set loose. That side of Yeager could be experienced only in close quarters.
Yeager, the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound and key figure in the 1983 movie The Right Stuff, died today aged 97. It will surprise many, including this writer, that he did so in his bed. So numerous were his close calls over the years that death should have cashed his cheque many years ago.
A rabbit-shooting country boy from West Virginia, Yeager stumbled into aviation in the US Army. As a engineer, he signed -up for flight training under a short-lived sergeant-pilot training scheme. It was his first step towards the war in Europe. With remarkable 20-10 vision and a steely determination, Yeager was one of the young men who forged the stereotype of the heroic fighter pilot.
When taking a P-51 Mustang to meet the enemy in the air, you needed a certain amount of self-confidence, and Yeager was endowed with 10 men's share of that. After being shot down and landing at the end of a parachute in occupied France, Yeager located the local resistance, using his back-country nous to teach them how to blow up stuff before escaping over the Pyrenees into Spain and ultimately back to England.
Rather than take the free ticket back to the US, Yeager agitated to stay in the UK. US Army Air Force policy was that evaders who had made contact with the resistance couldn't go back into action in case they were shot down and captured, putting the secrets of the resistance at risk. That wasn't good enough for Yeager; he was in Europe to fly goddamned fighter planes and he wasn't going home until he'd done his goddamned job. The USAAF relented and gave him another Mustang.
After the sounds of war faded in 1945, Yeager remained in the army, soon transferring to the fledgling US Air Force. The air force had given him a career and a living and he felt he needed to repay them, as if he hadn't done enough in Europe.
In 1947, a frustrated USAF ordered Yeager, fellow pilot Bob Hoover and engineer Jack Ridley to Muroc Lake in California get the Bell X-1 sorted, bearing simple orders to push it out past Mach 1. Civilian pilot "Slick" Goodlin was demanding eye-crossing dollars to fly the aircraft and so far hadn't managed to get it to go any faster than a combat Mustang.
Demanding nothing extra except for a fur coat for his wife Glennis, Yeager took on the task. The night before he cracked a rib in a horse-riding accident, but kept the injury secret. He wouldn't have been able to live with himself had another pilot taken the ride and "augered in" trying to break the sound barrier. It was Yeager's job and Yeager always did his job.
Sixty years later, Yeager told Australian Flying about the moment the little orange Bell Glamorous Glennis–named for his wife–made the leap to supersonic speed.
“As we got a jump in the mach meter and the buffeting quit when there was supersonic flow over the whole airplane, boy the nose really dropped on the airplane," he said as if it was all in a day's work. "Well I cranked the leading edge down [on the tailplane] and kept the nose up. We were out there about 20 seconds above Mach One, then we shut the rockets off and came on down and landed.”
Yeager became a national hero when the news was eventually announced, but the USAF said "no" to Mrs Yeager's fur coat.
Yeager would go on to fly just about one of every type in the USAF inventory for the next 40 years, including the X-2, which he flew at twice the speed of sound, shattering the record set by Scott Crossfield just as Crossfield as about to be pronounced the fastest man alive.
But it was his appointment as Commandant of the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School in 1962 that was the genesis of an enduring question: why did Yeager not become an astronaut?
Yeager was credited with the derogatory "spam in a can" comment to describe astronauts, make his derision plain. However, the reality is that he wasn't qualified no matter his aviation credentials because he didn't go to university; a degree was a prerequisite NASA set for astronaut. Many of his charges would go on to achieve fame in space travel.
"Yeager was a pilot, and a good one," Neil Armstrong later said. "He had limited understanding of aeronautical engineering and limited educational exposure. He really, I don't think, understood quite what we were trying to learn.
"He was very good at flying aircraft and doing aerobatics and loved getting into mock combat situations one-on-one. But he seemed to have less interest in precision and getting information and drawing conclusions from that. He seemed to be impatient–not so much bored–but impatient with the planning and techniques [of] the NACA."
Admittedly Yeager and Armstrong were too far apart in personality to ever have been great mates. After one particular flight they were both on that resulted in crossed memories about who was responsible for bogging a jet on a dry lake, the two never saw eye-to-eye again.
"Neil was a pretty good engineer," Yeager is on record as saying, "[but] he wasn't too good an airplane driver."
Yeager was never shy of kicking sacred cows should he consider that a particular cow needed kicking. To him, the legendary Crossfield was "just plain arrogant."
Duty would call Yeager back to combat during the Vietnam War, with his combat wing operating from The Phillipines, and in 1975 he officially retired from the USAF. He was back next day having accepted a $1-per-year salary as a consultant; a position that came with all the flying hours he wanted.
Fame returned in 1983 when author Tom Wolfe wrote the book The Right Stuff about the testing times at Muroc Lake and Edwards Air Force Base. The term "the right stuff" will forever be synonymous with Yeager, even though he never clicked with the term himself.
“People say ‘what does it [the term ‘the right stuff’] mean to you?’ and I say ‘it sells books.’ It did get a lot of attention," Yeager told Australian Flying.
"Basically Tom Wolfe did a good job. A lot of it was blown-out of shape a little bit. But the way they portrayed the Air Force was very good. You saw guys bustin’ their ass to support NASA and they never bitched about it.”
Then came the movie with Sam Sheppard as Yeager. But, a shrewd look at the actor who played Bill the barman in the Happy Bottom Riding Club will reveal that Chuck Yeager himself got some time in front of the cameras.
In "retirement", Yeager still found time to fly whatever aeroplanes he wanted, but remarkably, never owned an aeroplane in his life, prefering to borrow what he needed. Who didn't want the world's most famous aviator flying their aircraft? Suprisingly, with all the high-octane hoon machines decorated with the stars and bars at his disposal, Chuck Yeager nominated Aviat's humble Husky back-country taildragger as his favourite.
Over the years, Yeager would deliver opinion with blunt-force honesty that got a lot of people offside. He knew that, but it never stopped him or co-erced him into tempering his answers. He wasn't in the business of making fans.
He was even known for charging $50 for an autograph. No money; no signature. The reasoning came from his second wife Victoria (Glennis died of cancer in 1990), who said they were sick of signing material free only to see it sold on eBay. To be fair, this writer did witness General Yeager sign an autograph for a fan when his wife's back was turned.
One of his greatest joys and sadnesses later in life was flying the Experimental Aircraft Association's Ford Trimotor for children with terminal illnesses. He loved to see the grins on their faces despite the noise, smell and cold of the Trimotor's cabin.
And the other question he sometime struggled to come to grips with was "are you the best pilot there's ever been?" At times his ego would force him to say "yes" at other times he would nominate himself as a contender along with Hoover and long-time combat colleague and good mate Bud Anderson. He knew he was good, and the reason why he was good holds a powerful message for aviators of all levels.
“Why was I a better pilot that some of the other guys? It was because I flew more. There’s no such thing as a natural-born pilot. It is experience. It’s the guys who have the most experience that are the best. I flew probably three times as much as the next closest guy."
It is probably fitting given his long service, that the life of Chuck Yeager ended on 7 December 2020, exactly 79 years after the events at Pearl Harbor in 1941 that catapulted him into a life of aviation.