Gen. Chuck Yeager, 89, still flies his Aviat Husky biplane.(Photo: Martin E. Klimek for USA TODAY)
GRASS VALLEY, Calif. -- In the parking lot of this small Sierra Nevada
town's airfield, a decommissioned F-104 Starfighter jet looms over a
series of plaques. They honor the exploits of one Charles Elwood Yeager,
better known as Chuck.
But while the display has a posthumous
vibe, the local legend in question is very much alive and well, sitting
in his hanger a few yards up the road.
"I'll be 90 in February,
and while I'm not gonna run no marathon I still hunt and fish and fly,"
says Yeager, resting in the shade of a tail-dragger prop plane that he
solos in regularly. Parked nearby is an old pickup whose plate reads
BELL X1, the rocket plane he rode into history when it broke the sound
barrier in 1947.
Living legend is an overused term, but it applies to this American original indelibly captured by Sam Shepard in 1983's The Right Stuff. Not that Yeager is remotely Hollywood. For him, life boils down to "duty, it's that simple."
General, as he prefers to be called, doesn't particularly enjoy
interviews; navel-gazing isn't his style. But he agreed to speak with
USA TODAY to draw attention to the foundation that bears his name, which
supports a scholarship program at Marshall University in his native
West Virginia as well as the Young Eagles, a non-profit program chaired
by pilot Sully Sullenberger that gets kids airborne (Yeager is Eagles'
MORE: How Yeager got 'the right stuff'
may be in a dogfight with Father Time, but his bearing is still ramrod
straight. He says his famously acute 20/10 vision remains sharp,
although his ears are another matter. "I can't hear well," he growls in
his iconic drawl. "Damn P-51 Mustang noise. You go sit behind that
engine for eight hours, with a leather helmet on. But that's a handicap that came with the job."
That three-letter-word has defined Yeager's life. And what jobs they
were, from World War II combat ace to, famously, Air Force test pilot
who 65 years ago broke the speed of sound in that Bell X-1, which now
hangs in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.
name popped back onto the cultural radar Oct. 14, the anniversary of
his first supersonic flight. On that day in New Mexico, Austrian
skydiver Felix Baumgartner made history when he jumped out of a capsule
at nearly 130,000 feet and broke the speed of sound on his descent.
some 8 million people watched Baumgartner jump live on YouTube, Yeager
wasn't one of them. He was over at Nellis Air Force Base outside of Las
Vegas, strapped into a borrowed F-15 fighter. He proceeded to repeat his
own record flight by laying down "a big ol' sonic boom over Edwards"
Air Force base in the Mojave desert, where he'd run a pilot training
program a half-century ago.
Always on the go, a few days later
Yeager was hunting deer with the governor of West Virginia, and a week
after that he was grand marshal of the Veterans Day parade in San Diego.
little question that (first) supersonic feat transcends the feelings
any military officer has for their own branch," says Jack Hawkins,
director of the parade in San Diego, a decidedly Navy town. "I have
pride in my Marine Corps, but when you look at what Gen. Yeager has
done, you have pride in America."
Often imitated, never duplicated
place in history "is secure," says Bob van der Linden, chairman of the
aeronautics department of the National Air and Space Museum, noting that
Yeager laid the groundwork for a historic test pilot program that
eventually trained NASA's astronauts and in the process created a
"He became so iconic that it seemed every test
pilot after him had to affect some sort of drawl, down to many
commercial pilots you hear on the intercom today," says van der Linden.
"He was that aw-shucks guy from the country who knew machines
intimately. And while he wasn't known outside the military for a long
time, The Right Stuff changed all that."
That 1979 Tom Wolfe book-turned-movie starred Shepard as a taciturn,
rugged and fiercely independent maverick who respected authority but
never second-guessed his gut. Those traits still define the man. A few
hours in Yeager's company are a mix of history lesson and lecture.
wit, he feels Baumgartner was merely "doing what (Col.) Joe (Kittinger,
the Austrian's 84-year-old advisor) did in 1960 (from 102,000 feet), so
what's he proving?" And NASA made a mistake wooing its first astronauts
with "a free house (and) a cut of the goddamn Time-Life (publicity
But wouldn't the ultimate test pilot have enjoyed
going into space? "Sure, but I couldn't, I only had a high school
diploma," says Yeager. Couldn't the rules be relaxed? Yeager leans
forward in his plastic chair: "Rules aren't for relaxing. Look, I don't
cry over spilled milk. Everything I did was for duty, not for
What Yeager did in 1947 was take a volatile
experimental aircraft to a speed that many were convinced would kill
him. In subsonic tests that led up to the X-1's supersonic flight, the
plane seemed to lose stability and be on the verge of disintegrating the
closer it got to Mach 1.
Undaunted, Yeager and his chief engineer
Jack Ridley pioneered the use of a "flying tail," transforming the rear
horizontal stabilizer into an active part of the aircraft. "It took the
British, the French and the Soviets five years to find out that little
trick," he says with a laugh. "It gave us a jump on the world."
everyone knew not only Yeager's name, but also his effortlessly cool
persona in the face of danger. Even today, he describes the day he
almost died when the X-1A spun out in 1953 as if it were just a bad day
at the office.
After rising at 3 a.m. to go duck hunting, Yeager
cheated death in the X-1A. "When I landed they took me to the hospital
but I was OK so they let me go home,' he says. "But I had to drive to
L.A. to give a speech at the Army and Navy club. Got home at 2 a.m. and
went to bed. That was my day. That's the way we lived."
More than just flying
days, Yeager's exploits still command reverence, especially among
aviators. His website, chuckyeager.com, offers fans signed memorabilia,
and his second wife, Victoria, 53, (first wife Glennis died of ovarian
cancer in 1990) is hopeful there could be interest in making another
movie about the pilot's life.
"People know about the X-1, of
course, but there's so much more to him than that," says the former
actress who married the general in 2003.
As the sun starts to drop
in the mountain sky, Yeager is keen to return to the glorious past.
More tales about risking life and limb, told with a casualness that
belies the obvious danger.
Wasn't he ever afraid? "What good does
it do to be afraid? It doesn't help anything," Yeager says. "You better
try and figure out what's happening and correct it."
So none of his feats were heroic?
Yeager shrugs. "A lot of it was just being in the right place at the right time."
With the very right stuff.