Chuck Yeager

“A career in flying was like climbing one of those ancient Babylonian pyramids made up of a dizzy progression of steps and ledges, a ziggurat, a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff…”

—Tom Wolfe

October 14, 1947. He is strapped inside an orange, needle-nosed firecracker with stubby, razor-thin wings, dangling nearly five miles above the rattlesnake ridges and skeletal Joshua trees of the California high desert. Around him gurgles an incipient hellfire of alcohol and liquid oxygen, just waiting to erupt. His right side hurts like a sumbitch: Two days ago, on a wild midnight horseback ride, he’d been thrown and sprung two ribs—all part of what author Tom Wolfe in his 1979 panegyric to the aces of aerospace, The Right Stuff, calls “the military tradition of Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving.” No drinking today, but right quick now he’d be driving…

Straight toward the Barrier.

It hangs out there somewhere ahead: invisible, murderous—a zone of wild turbulence that can flip even the best-prepared aircraft into a wing-shredding spin. Already the Barrier has claimed the life of a top test pilot, Britain’s Geoffrey de Havilland, son of the famed aircraft designer. De Havilland’s DH-108 was hammered to bits, like a macerated moth, as it neared the Barrier.

Now it is Yeager’s turn to try. At 26,000 feet the B-29 mother ship goes into a shallow dive and unloads its ordnance. The firecracker with the man in its belly—known as the Bell X-1 but christened “Glamorous Glennis” by its pilot—drops like a bomb. As Yeager lights off the four rocket chambers, fire leaps from the orange tail pipe, and the plane surges skyward into the sun.

His eyes are riveted on the mach-meter. When the needle reaches 1, he will have accomplished his mission. At Mach .87 he feels the first buffeting—but it’s nothing worse than what he might have felt racing his daddy’s ole pickup truck in the West Virginia hollows back home. He makes a minor adjustment of the controls. The buffeting ceases at Mach .96. Then the needle leaps off the scale.

“Say, Ridley,” he radios his flight engineer on the ground, “there’s sum pin’ wrong with this ole machmeter. It’s gone kinda screwy on me.”

At that instant, miles below on the desert, the ground crew hears a loud, echoing boom: as if God had cracked His baseball bat.

Chuck Yeager has broken the Sound Barrier.

And in the process, reached the pinnacle of that invisible ziggurat in the sky, the pyramid defining the Right Stuff.

That was all he reached that day. There were no television cameras. No advertising execs hammering the door down with endorsement offers. Not even a press conference. It took the Pentagon, still hung up with World War II security bugaboos, several months to announce to a yawning world that Yeager—24 years old and earning only $283 a month as an Air Force captain—had broken the Unbreakable Barrier. Even then it didn’t make much of an impression. In 1952 a highly popular (and equally inaccurate) British movie called Breaking the Sound Barrier, based on the de Havilland incident, led people to believe that it was an Englishman who had turned the trick. To Yeager, who had learned to hate “those snobby Limeys” while based in Britain during World War II, that ignorance still rankles.

But justice has finally been done.

In the Ladd Company’s recently released superhit The Right Stuff, playwright-actor Sam Shepard fills the role of Yeager, who though not technically the star of the movie is certainly the character with the most righteous of stuff, and Barbara Hershey plays Chuck’s wife, Glennis. Yeager himself, now 60 years old and a retired Air Force general, served as technical consultant and has a bit part as a tough-guy barkeep at Pancho’s, a raunchy fly-in saloon near Muroc Army Air Field (later Edwards Air Force Base) where the X-1 flights took place. The movie was produced by Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler. “When Bob Chartoff asked me to be the adviser,” Yeager laughs, “he said, ‘We have a moral obligation to you, Chuck.’ I could see my agent’s eyes rolling over with dollar signs, tryin’ to figger what a moral obligation comes to in cash money.”

Yeager was never considered for the space program itself. He didn’t have a college degree, and the people who were trying to sell America on this seemingly preposterous Buck Rogers scheme needed clean-cut comic-book heroes to do so—Frank Merriwells in space suits. Yeager’s crusty, self-educated image didn’t fit. Like most test pilots, Yeager was outright scornful of the astronauts, whom he considered little more than passive baggage in vehicles programmed and controlled by scientists on the ground. “Spam in a can” is what the hot-rock pilots called their spacecraft counterparts. Doubly ironic is the advertising for the film, which suggests that it was the astronauts who had the Right Stuff, when author Wolfe made it caustically clear that Yeager owned the patent on that commodity. “But you can sell anything with PR,” Yeager drawls wryly. “John Glenn, for example, was not your typical Marine aviator—he was a real straight arrow. But the problem was he wanted everyone else to be as goody-good as he was. Well, most of the Marine aviators I’ve known would screw a snake, given half the chance.”

But reptilian peccadilloes aside, Charles Elwood Yeager has certainly come a lot farther than he might have if World War II hadn’t yanked him out of a real-life Dogpatch in Appalachia back in 1941. Born in Myra, W.Va., he was raised in nearby Hamlin, where his father was a natural-gas driller—a career Yeager might have followed if he hadn’t enlisted in the Army Air Corps in September 1941, only three months before the U.S. entered the war. The quick military buildup after Pearl Harbor found America short of pilots, and the services had to call on enlisted men to flesh out the ranks. “Hell,” recalls Yeager, “I hadn’t even seen an airplane before I joined up.”

But he did become a proficient aviation crew chief. Qualifying for the Flying Sergeants Program in July of 1942, he won his wings and an appointment as a flight officer the following March. “We got great training,” Yeager recalls. “More than 500 hours, mostly in Bell P-39 Airacobras, before we were sent to Europe in 1943 with the second contingent of combat Mustangs.” The North American P-51 Mustang, with a Rolls-Royce engine, was faster, longer-ranged and could climb higher than the British Spitfire that had contributed to winning the Battle of Britain. Yeager shot down two German planes on his first eight missions.

Then, on his ninth, he was shot down—hit by German flak near Bordeaux in Occupied France. Wounded, he was rescued and turned over to the French underground, then smuggled over the Pyrenees into Spain, where the Franco regime interned him for about two weeks. But he made it back to England for D-Day, and on Oct. 12, 1944, leading a wing of Mustangs in support of a bomber mission, Yeager and his squadron “bounced” a gaggle of Messerschmitts. (He personally shot down five of them, a feat so rare in a single dogfight that when Navy pilot Edward “Butch” O’Hare did it in the Pacific, Chicago’s principal airport was named for him after he was killed during the war.) A few weeks later Chuck found his prop-driven Mustang pitted against German Me-262s—the world’s first operational turbojet fighters, capable of doing 539 mph in level flight. He shot up two as they whipped past him, then actually shot one down. “Nothin’ special,” he shrugs of this feat. “I caught him in a traffic pattern and hammered him while he was tryin’ to land.”

Yeager ended the war with 13 German planes to his credit. By that time he’d found a home in the Army Air Force—or at least in the cockpit of its hottest planes—and his quick reflexes, coupled with a steady, instinctive feel for what a plane was up to, made him a natural for the test-pilot program shaping up at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio.

“Just bein’ a fighter ace don’t make you a test pilot,” he says. “Look at Dick Bong.” Richard Bong of Poplar, Wis., was America’s top World War II ace, with 40 kills flying P-38 Lightnings in the Pacific. Home from combat in 1945, he was testing the new jet-powered P-80 Shooting Star at Burbank, Calif., when he crashed on takeoff and was killed. “I saw him bust his ass,” Yeager says. “He forgot to turn on his fuel pump.”

Yeager didn’t make the same mistake and soon was rewarded with duty at Muroc, with 130° temperatures during the day and nothing to do in the crystalline, icy-crisp nights but hang out at Pancho’s, the run-down watering spot for the test pilots, drinking and telling war stories. During the day he flew high and very, very fast, and was paid almost nothing for the privilege. Not that he minded. Early in the war he’d met Glennis Dickhouse at a USO dance in Oroville, Calif., and they were married in 1945. Glennis, a trim blonde with a distinctively tilted nose and a figure reminiscent of Jessica Lange’s, contributed her name to each of his three fighter planes and to the X-1, which now hangs in the National Air & Space Museum at the Smithsonian.

Together the Yeagers raised four children, two boys and two girls, who have produced seven grandchildren, with an eighth on the way. It was a rough life on Air Force pay, living in drafty military housing in the emptiest corners of the world, shopping in no-frills PXs, never having enough in the bank to buy that new car, much less a new shotgun for the hunting they both loved. Worst of all, they never knew when the next transfer would come through, uprooting the kids. Nor could they ever be confident they were more than a few days away from a funeral. “Fighter jocks,” especially test pilots, were killed regularly even after the war. But the marriage—almost 39 years of it—remains rock-steady.

During the Korean War, Yeager was piloting test flights, not combat missions. Then came Vietnam. As commanding officer of the 405th Fighter Wing stationed at Clark Air Base in the Philippines, Yeager flew 126 missions—”close air-support for U.S. and South Vietnamese ground forces during the day,” he says, “and interdiction along the Ho Chi Minh Trail at night.” Wing commanders didn’t usually fly that often, but Yeager shrugs off the notion that this was another example of the Right Stuff in action. “I don’t rightly know what that means,” he says, looking away. “I was a pilot in the Air Force, and I done what they told me to do. Nothin’ special about that.”

Retired as a brigadier general in 1975, Yeager is still flying faster than the speed of sound—nowadays in the F-20 Tigershark, a Mach 2 aircraft built by Northrop, which employs Yeager as a consulting test pilot. “I guess I’m the world’s oldest active jet pilot,” he says. “But my eyes are still as sharp at the age of 60 as they were when I was 18, and my reflexes are still a-hangin’ in there.”

When he’s not “booming and zooming” in the F-20 or making commercials for AC-Delco products, Yeager and his original Glamorous Glennis can be found, likely as not, in their redwood-shingled retirement home tucked away among the madrona trees and Douglas firs just outside Grass Valley, Calif. A carefully dusted model of the X-1 gleams from a niche in the entryway, and Chuck’s trinkets from overseas duty—including paintings, ceramics and a razor-sharp Filipino kris—adorn the shelves. “The kris is 200 years old,” Yeager says. “I bought it from a woman not quite that age who told me she’d chopped off plenty of heads with it.”

An unlikely dweller at the Yeager home is TDB—That Dirty Bird—a 4-year-old California quail that is Chuck and Glennis’s only pet. The bird, a bright-plumaged slate blue male with a wobbly black topknot, is fearless among humans and loves to stroll along between their feet. “I think he feels safe that way,” Glennis says. “He must think that the shoes are other quail, and he’s in the midst of the covey. He’s got a pet shoe that means as much to him as a child’s security blanket.” The Yeagers adopted TDB when its mother was killed by a hawk, and Glennis keeps a loaded .22 rifle handy to warn off would-be predators.

The Yeagers’ porch looks down on a small pond which in season throngs with ducks and their broods—mallard and wood duck families sailing the dark water in fluffy flotillas. “Every year I have to catch the babies and transfer them to a larger lake,” Glennis explains. “Otherwise we’d be up to our eyeballs in ducks here. I get them drunk on corn mash soaked in whiskey and then have to catch them quick before they drown. It’s a busy day.” When she isn’t attending to the needs of her avian adoptees, Glennis manages 15 rental properties the Yeagers have acquired in recent years. “If I die tomorrow,” Yeager says, “my retirement pension would end like that. This way Glen is protected.”

Pleasant as he finds his eight-acre retreat, Yeager is too much the man of action to spend his spare time loafing on the front porch. Still a keen outdoorsman, he hunts elk in the Rockies every fall, and each July undertakes a backpacking/fishing trip that would cripple many a younger man. “Years ago, when I was flying over the Mount Whitney area,” he says, “I spotted this lake way up in the High Sierra—gin-clear and teeming with trout, up there above the timberline. Crabtree Lake it’s called, at 13,000 feet, and the golden trout spawn in there. We pack in on foot 125 miles each way.”

Fondly, he produces a well-thumbed pack of color prints: The fish, some up to four and a half pounds, are the color of old gold. Looking at them, his blue eyes sparkle under the curly gray hair much as they must have years ago, when the X-1’s machmeter went “kinda screwy.”

“When you really stop to think about it,” he says, “finding that lake like that, just with the luck of the flight pattern, that’s one of the real rewards of flying. Those trout up there—they’ve got the real Right Stuff.”

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