Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the BDN on Aug. 12, 1996 when retired Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager visited the Maine Air National Guard base in Bangor. Yeager died Monday at age 97.
BANGOR — The old warrior’s face is deeply lined, there isn’t much hair under his 357th Fighter Group cap, and he has to watch what he eats.
But the world may never see another pilot with the same combination of skill, courage, experience and luck as Chuck Yeager.
The 73-year-old Yeager has been flying combat aircraft for more than 50 years. He shot down 13 German aircraft during World War II, was himself shot down over Europe and escaped with the help of the French underground.
Yeager secured his place in history as a test pilot after the war. In 1947, flying the rocket-powered Bell X-1 to speeds of about 700 miles per hour, he became the first person to break the sound barrier. The feat was immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s book “The Right Stuff.”
Almost 50 years after his record-shattering flight, Yeager remains a brash jet jockey known for his blunt speech and impish humor. The pilot advised actor Sam Shepard, who portrayed him in the movie version of Wolfe’s book.
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“Sam Shepard was a neat guy,” Yeager said with a deep-voiced, West Virginia twang. “He hunts, fishes, drives a pickup truck and shacks up with Jessica Lange. What more could you want out of life?”
Yeager spoke briefly with reporters Saturday afternoon at the Maine Air National Guard base in Bangor. He was the guest speaker at a military awards ceremony that night, then opened the Guard’s air show Sunday morning with a demonstration of the capabilities of the World War II-era P-51 Mustang fighter.
Yeager doesn’t care to talk about whether he has the right stuff. “I know that golden trout have the right stuff, and I’ve seen a few gals here and there that I’d bet had it in spades, but those words seem meaningless when used to describe a pilot’s attributes,” he said in his 1985 autobiography, “Yeager.”
Added the pilot: “All I know is that I worked my tail off to learn how to fly, and worked hard at it all the way. And in the end, the one big reason why I was a better-than-average pilot was because I flew more than anybody else. If there is such a thing as the right stuff in piloting, then it is experience.”
Yeager also credits a good measure of his success to luck. Being born in 1923 gave him a chance to be a military aviator, and that prepared him for later exploits as a test pilot.
“To make his mark on history, Christopher Columbus had to be born at a time when the world was believed to be flat,” he said. “… Being in my early 20s right after the war was the key to everything that happened in my life, placing me smack in the golden age of aviation research and development.”
Still, it takes more than experience or luck to fly into the arms of death day after day. Some people would call it courage, perhaps, or foolhardiness. Yeager says it was neither.
“Duty,” he said flatly. “You just hope it isn’t you [who dies], and if it is you, you won’t know anything about it anyway.”
It was much the same speech Yeager gave to Air Force pilots in Southeast Asia early during the Vietnam War. “Damn you guys,” he said. “You drank the best booze, had the best-looking women, flew the hottest airplanes — now you’re gonna have to pay for your reputation. … I know the ground fire is lethal. I know that if you really press home and go down on the deck, you’ll be lucky to come through it. But that’s war. That’s your mission, and you’ve got to start doing it.”
Yeager commanded the 405th Fighter Wing in Southeast Asia for two years during the Vietnam War. Decades later, he remains angry about the complicated rules of engagement that put many military targets off-limits.
“In Vietnam, the rules of engagement wouldn’t fit in this room,” said Yeager, pointing around a cavernous briefing room on the Air Guard base. “In the Gulf War, [President George] Bush basically wrote a single word on a card and handed it to the military. It said `win.”‘
Yeager retired as a brigadier general in 1975 and was awarded the Medal of Honor the next year for his exploits in the X-1. Although he left military service 21 years ago, he never stopped flying experimental aircraft.
Yeager is still a test pilot-consultant at Edwards Air Force Base in California, which he visits regularly. He has logged more than 10,000 hours of flying time in 180 military aircraft.
Despite the changes in the United States during the past half-century, Yeager says America still has “the right stuff.” He says today’s Air Force pilots are as good as ever, possibly better.
“They’re sharper, more effective, they have better equipment and they’re just as dedicated,” he said.
That also applies to the nation as a whole, said Yeager, who blames the media for accenting America’s problems.
“I don’t see anything wrong with the country,” he said. “The kids I know today are just like the kids I knew growing up in West Virginia.”
Andrew Kekacs, Bangor Daily News