Chuck Yeager still gruff, colorful and quotable at 88
Oshkosh - At 88, Chuck Yeager still has the right stuff.
He goes fishing.
And he spins tales of an extraordinary aviation career.
“I tell it the way I remember it - that’s not necessarily the way it happened,” Yeager said Wednesday, speaking to an overflow audience settled into a museum hangar at the EAA AirVenture event.
The greatest test pilot of his era, perhaps the greatest of all time, was the first man to fly through the sound barrier. His exploits were long-ago celebrated in the acclaimed Tom Wolfe book “The Right Stuff,” later brought to the screen.
Sam Shepard played Yeager on film.
But nobody can really play Yeager, not the man who flew fast and flew fearless, once even skirting beneath a bridge in West Virginia.
“The one word you use in military flying is duty,” he said. “It’s your duty. You have no control over outcome, no control over pick-and-choose. It’s duty.”
He has sky-blue eyes and a sly grin. He’s a little rough around the edges, too, telling it how he sees it.
Bring up the name of test pilot Scott Crossfield, who was killed when his plane crashed during a storm in 2006, and Yeager said: “He’s dead now and basically he’s dead because of arrogance.”
Mention NASA and Yeager, an old Air Force man, snorted: “In 1966, NASA took over in space and it has been a bureaucratic mess ever since.”
Asked to name the best pilot, he growled: “There is no best pilot. If the guy is alive, he’s pretty damn good.”
Yeager fought in two conflicts: World War II and Vietnam. He entered the service as a private and retired as a brigadier general.
Born in West Virginia, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in September 1941, shortly after graduating from high school.
He enrolled in pilot training in September 1942, went into combat in early 1944, got his first aerial victory on March 4, and the next day was shot down over southern France. He eluded capture and joined up with a group from the French Resistance.
“Since there’s not a German in the world who can catch a West Virginian in the woods, I didn’t get caught,” he said.
He returned to Britain and returned to combat, shooting down 13 planes by the end of the war. After the war, he moved into the test program.
The jet age was advancing. The sound barrier was within reach.
Yeager flew the Bell X-1 experimental rocket plane.
“It wasn’t that the X-1 would kill you, it was the systems in the X-1 that would kill you,” he said.
A few days after he broke his ribs while riding a horse, Yeager maneuvered into the X-1 and broke the sound barrier on Oct. 14, 1947.
“The Mach meter only went to 1.0,” he said. “I don’t think they had a hell of a lot of confidence in us.”
He broke other speed records. He had some close calls, once ejecting from a stricken aircraft, another time tumbling 51,000 feet in 51 seconds while piloting an X-1A. He regained control at about 29,000 feet.
“I overshot a little bit, ended up at 80,000 feet instead of 70,000.” Yeager said. “As I went through 2.3 Mach, the airplane began to yaw. This is kind of strange to me. I pushed on the rudder and the damned airplane yawed like hell and the airplane began to snap and roll. I ended up in every rotation. I tell you, it rattled your brain.”
What does he like about flying his own plane? “Good transportation and you don’t have to fly commercial,” he said.
“I still get in an F-16 or F-15” with an instructional pilot in the back seat, he added.
Yeager said he “didn’t pay any attention” to the public part of his career that began with the publication of “The Right Stuff.” He was just doing his job.
Yeager said dozens of streets at Edwards Air Force Base are named after dead pilots.
“A lot of those guys did exactly what I did,” he said.
On the base, there’s also a street that bears Yeager’s name.
Yeager will speak again to the public Thursday, while standing beside a P-51 Mustang similar to one he flew in World War II, from noon to 1 p.m. at the air show.
To read more about the famous pilot or to follow him on Twitter, go to chuckyeager.com.