Remembering Chuck Yeager
Sometimes we do history here at the Whiskey bar. Sometimes it’s current events.
Today it’s both, considering news which broke last night that legendary American aviator Chuck Yeager has died at age 97.1
He was quite a guy…
I met him once, long ago. Heard him speak.
I’ll tell you about it in a moment.
Let’s dig in…
Born in 1923 and raised in the mountains of West Virginia, Yeager enlisted in the Army after the U.S. entered into World War II. He became an airplane mechanic.
Blessed with incredible vision – 20/10 uncorrected – and phenomenal reflexes, he took advantage of a program to become a pilot.
Yeager served as a fighter pilot in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. In fact, he was an ace, meaning he shot down more than five enemy aircraft. (He’s credited with 11 kills.)
They were high performance enemy birds, too. One of Yeager’s famous lines is, “The first time I ever saw a jet, I shot it down.”
At one point, however, Yeager was on the receiving end of enemy fire.
In March 1944, Yeager was shot down behind enemy lines in France. Wounded, he escaped via a long trek over the Pyrenees mountains into Spain.
He made it back to England, and from there returned to front line combat.
War stories aside, Yeager is most famous as the first man to break the sound barrier – “in level flight,” as the saying goes – in October 1947.
From the days of the Wright Brothers through World War II, piston and then jet engine technology improved and propelled aircraft at higher and higher speeds.
But the sound barrier seemed impenetrable.
During World War II and afterwards, a few aircraft reached sound barrier speeds (about 770 mph at sea level, for reference). But they did this in powered dives, with catastrophic results because the airframes broke apart and killed the pilots.
Which brings up an important point…
Yes, you need to be a good pilot to go supersonic.
But at root, you need a complex aircraft built from the inside-out to absorb transonic shock waves and other immense stresses, coupled with a powerful engine (or two) to deliver the necessary thrust.
Now Yeager was not just an exceptionally good pilot. He was lucky. The right man, in the right place, at the right time.
Yeager happened to be assigned to an aircraft testing site in California in 1947. It was an old watering stop on the Santa Fe Railroad, called Muroc Dry Lake back then. Today, it’s Edwards Air Force Base.
While stationed at Muroc, the gods of military procurement smiled upon Yeager. They gifted him with a purpose-built aircraft – the Bell X-1 – that was capable of pushing beyond the edge of the flight envelope of that era.
Chuck Yeager in front of Bell X-1 supersonic aircraft. USAF image.2
And the rest is history.
Speaking of which, have you ever read The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe?
If you haven’t, perhaps you should.
Published in 1979, the book is an account of the early days of the U.S. space program. The focus is on how the first astronauts were selected, trained and launched into space.
Wolfe interviewed everyone from astronauts and NASA bigshots, to doctors, wives and janitors at facilities across the country.
His book details the wild and crazy efforts of a trailblazing process in the earliest days of the U.S. manned space effort; how to create a cadre of astronauts.
As events unfolded, the first selectees – seven American men – were all top-notch military pilots if not well-credentialed test pilots.
Chuck Yeager watched as the space program plucked participants from the long list of superbly qualified applicants.
Yeager was iconic even then for his sound barrier exploits. He was a lead player in the arena of aircraft development and testing. In many respects, he was the template for what a brave, bold, daring, accomplished, butt-kicking military pilot ought to be.
Unsurprisingly, in a book about selecting the first American astronauts, Wolfe devotes entire chapters to Yeager in The Right Stuff.
In essence, though, Yeager was a “stick and throttle” guy. His idea of flying was for the pilot to be strapped tight into the cockpit, hands firmly in control of the machine.
This Yeager ideal was opposite to the design philosophy of people running the space program.
That is, from the perspective of NASA planners, designers and engineers, U.S. astronauts would be strapped into a capsule, lofted into space and recovered at all stages by automated systems.
“Spam in a can,” Yeager called it. Astronauts going along just for the ride. Very bureaucratic.
In his book, Wolfe makes great literary use of the contrast between Yeager’s approach to hands-on flying, versus the passive, cargo-ish nature of astronauts in a capsule.
The Right Stuff is a great read. And among key takeaways from Wolfe’s book is just the title alone… Because that phrase – “the right stuff” – near-instantly burned itself into the culture.
It’s a pilot term, of course… The best and hottest pilots lay claim to possessing the right stuff.
After Wolfe’s book hit the shelves, the term rapidly carried across professions… The best doctors had the right stuff. Lawyers too. And Wall Street traders. Corporate titans. Athletes. Politicians. Schoolteachers. You name it.
If someone was really, really good at something, they had… it.
Which takes me back to an auditorium at Naval Air Station North Island, across the bay from San Diego, in about 1983.
Chuck Yeager came to give a talk…
He laid out the right stuff to a bunch of people who wanted to hear it.
I was a junior officer, assigned to an aircraft squadron based at North Island. We flew the Lockheed S-3 Viking, a sturdy, twin engine, carrier capable bird, built to hunt submarines.
The S-3 has long been retired from Navy service, although a large flock of them are wrapped in plastic and still nest in the boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson.
My commanding officer (CO) heard about the Yeager talk and ordered everyone to go listen to him and learn something.
Plenty of COs of other units must have had the same idea because the place was packed.
Navy, Marines, Air Force, Army, Coast Guard. Active duty. Reserve. National Guard. Officers and enlisted. Flight crew and maintainers. A couple of admirals. Aircraft carrier captains. Cruiser and destroyer guys. Submariners. Even doctors and chaplains.
Everybody wanted to hear Yeager.
Of course, Yeager talked about flying. But really, he spoke about living a purposeful life and always pursuing excellence.
He said that as you go through life, decide that you want to do something. “Find something that you want to do, and then do it and be good at it.”
Set goals, he advised. Concentrate on results. Respect the risks but keep moving forward.
“When you have a lot of things to do,” he said, “start with the most difficult and work your tail off at it. You might get it finished or not. But at the end of the day, at least you spent your time working on the most difficult thing. You’re closer to getting it done.”
When you reach a point of frustration, he said, and you have to meet a deadline, “Do what you have to do. Accomplish the task. Then it’s better to seek forgiveness than to ask permission.”
A laugh line there…
Yeager discussed going supersonic for the first time. He said that he went up with two cracked ribs. “Hurt like hell. Medically, I probably should not have done it. But I did it anyway.”
“The real barrier wasn’t the sky,” Yeager said. “It was all in the scientific and engineering knowledge of how to accomplish going fast, passing through a physical condition that people didn’t truly understand.”
Yeager admitted to not knowing what might happen when he took the X-1 up to speed. But he had faith in the engineers and builders who constructed the aircraft.
“I had to have faith,” he said. “Hey, I’m not a suicide case, right?”
That, and, “I was picked to fly the X-1. It was my duty to fly it. And I did.”
Yeager talked about becoming a “great pilot.”
“I learned to fly in wartime,” he said. “I got shot down on my eighth mission. Wounded. Had to evade Germans and walk across a mountain range to get home. A lot of other guys had something like that happen, and they wound up dead. When you survive, it improves your learning process. You get what’s at stake. You study harder.”
He amplified this point. “Fear of dying should make you want to learn everything possible about your airplane and your equipment. You always have to respect the risks.”
Yeager was quick to admit that he was fortunate. He owed much to people who offered him opportunities along the way. “Good people put their trust in me. I repaid them by being worthy of it.”
He offered basic advice. “The best pilots fly more than others. That’s why they’re the best.”
He added, “But you have to learn from every hop you take. There are no routine flights. Every switch you flick. Every movement of the throttle or stick. Every glance at the instrument panel. It all has a purpose. Everything you do is a skill. It’s learned behavior. You practice it again and again. You ask yourself at every point if you’re doing it to the best level. Everything.”
He used a familiar line, which was one of his signature comments. “If you can walk away from a landing, it’s a good landing. If you use the airplane the next day, it’s an outstanding landing.”
Huge laughter at that one…
And another laugh line: “Success is when you manage to live to fly another day.”
Plus, some philosophy. “It’s interesting how people who are really good at a job tend to enjoy doing it.”
Yeager’s closing bit of advice… “Be sure you’re having some fun in life.”
“Do what you can for as long as you can. There will come a point when it’s over. But at least you were there and made the most of it.”
And so this morning in the wake of last night’s sad news, we note that into the wild blue yonder goes another great American hero.
Rest in peace after a job well done, oh good and faithful servant.
On that note, I rest my case.
That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder
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2 Ref; Yeager image, by U.S. Air Force photo – Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1611611