Chuck Yeager died last week at 97. It’s amazing that a great movie has never been made of his life. His was a life that, if anything, was larger than its own lore and legend.
Maybe no movie, or actor, could do such a life justice.
He went from a squirrel-hunting, outdoor-loving, wild West Virginia boy to the greatest test pilot of all time — arguably the greatest aviator of all time. The only two who could contest him for the title are Charles Lindbergh and Neil Armstrong.
He flew some 150 different military aircraft and logged 10,000 hours in the air. He flew for nearly 60 years, which included his years as a World War II flying ace (he shot down 13 German planes, five in one day), his test pilot years and 127 missions in Vietnam.
He started as an enlisted man in the Army Air Corps, and a mechanic. And he said understanding how planes were put together and functioned was the key to his success as a test pilot and why he was chosen to fly the Bell Aircraft X-1, in which he broke the sound barrier in 1947.
But Yeager did not retire from the Air Force until the mid-1970s. By then he was a brigadier general. He kept flying, and he kept testing planes, for decades more.
He became the commander of the U.S. Air Force Flight Test Pilot School, at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert. There he trained a new generation of test pilots and, of course, the first generation of astronauts. He could not become an astronaut himself because he had no college degree — only the coolest head, best reflexes and deepest curiosity in aviation or aerospace.
And that is the great misunderstanding about the general: He was not the “cowboy in the sky,” as some dubbed him. Yes, he had daring and panache, and seemed to be fearless (though he said he was always keenly aware of death and trying to outmaneuver it). But he held that the real key to flying was knowledge — first, knowing your plane and, second, seeking ever-greater understanding of different kinds of planes and flight itself.
God knows Yeager had fun. He said he went to flight school because he noticed pilots had clean hands and had pretty girls on their arms. The morning he broke the sound barrier, he had two taped-up broken ribs. He’d been racing his wife, whom he dubbed “Glamorous Glennis” and named his planes after, on horseback the night before and he hit a closed fence in the dark.
But the greatest fun, he said, was figuring out problems no one had ever tackled, not to mention solved, before.
He was not a cowboy but a master engineer and a scientist (much like Lindbergh and Armstrong).
Yeager’s joy in living and insatiable technical and intellectual curiosity were indivisible and of a whole.
— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette