GRASS VALLEY, Calif. -- In the parking lot of this small Sierra Nevadatown's airfield, a decommissioned F-104 Starfighter jet looms over aseries of plaques. They honor the exploits of one Charles Elwood Yeager,better known as Chuck.
But while the display has a posthumousvibe, the local legend in question is very much alive and well, sittingin 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 hesolos in regularly. Parked nearby is an old pickup whose plate readsBELL X1, the rocket plane he rode into history when it broke the soundbarrier 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."
TheGeneral, as he prefers to be called, doesn't particularly enjoyinterviews; navel-gazing isn't his style. But he agreed to speak withUSA TODAY to draw attention to the foundation that bears his name, whichsupports a scholarship program at Marshall University in his nativeWest Virginia as well as the Young Eagles, a non-profit program chairedby pilot Sully Sullenberger that gets kids airborne (Yeager is Eagles'chairman emeritus).
Yeagermay be in a dogfight with Father Time, but his bearing is still ramrodstraight. He says his famously acute 20/10 vision remains sharp,although his ears are another matter. "I can't hear well," he growls inhis iconic drawl. "Damn P-51 Mustang noise. You go sit behind thatengine for eight hours, with a leather helmet on. But that's a handicap that came with the job."
Job.That three-letter-word has defined Yeager's life. And what jobs theywere, from World War II combat ace to, famously, Air Force test pilotwho 65 years ago broke the speed of sound in that Bell X-1, which nowhangs in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.
Yeager'sname popped back onto the cultural radar Oct. 14, the anniversary ofhis first supersonic flight. On that day in New Mexico, Austrianskydiver Felix Baumgartner made history when he jumped out of a capsuleat nearly 130,000 feet and broke the speed of sound on his descent.
Whilesome 8 million people watched Baumgartner jump live on YouTube, Yeagerwasn't one of them. He was over at Nellis Air Force Base outside of LasVegas, strapped into a borrowed F-15 fighter. He proceeded to repeat hisown 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 trainingprogram a half-century ago.
Always on the go, a few days laterYeager was hunting deer with the governor of West Virginia, and a weekafter that he was grand marshal of the Veterans Day parade in San Diego.
"There'slittle question that (first) supersonic feat transcends the feelingsany military officer has for their own branch," says Jack Hawkins,director of the parade in San Diego, a decidedly Navy town. "I havepride in my Marine Corps, but when you look at what Gen. Yeager hasdone, you have pride in America."
Often imitated, never duplicated
Yeager'splace in history "is secure," says Bob van der Linden, chairman of theaeronautics department of the National Air and Space Museum, noting thatYeager laid the groundwork for a historic test pilot program thateventually trained NASA's astronauts and in the process created alegendary template.
"He became so iconic that it seemed every testpilot after him had to affect some sort of drawl, down to manycommercial pilots you hear on the intercom today," says van der Linden."He was that aw-shucks guy from the country who knew machinesintimately. And while he wasn't known outside the military for a longtime, 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 butnever second-guessed his gut. Those traits still define the man. A fewhours in Yeager's company are a mix of history lesson and lecture.
Towit, he feels Baumgartner was merely "doing what (Col.) Joe (Kittinger,the Austrian's 84-year-old advisor) did in 1960 (from 102,000 feet), sowhat's he proving?" And NASA made a mistake wooing its first astronautswith "a free house (and) a cut of the goddamn Time-Life (publicitycontract)."
But wouldn't the ultimate test pilot have enjoyedgoing into space? "Sure, but I couldn't, I only had a high schooldiploma," says Yeager. Couldn't the rules be relaxed? Yeager leansforward in his plastic chair: "Rules aren't for relaxing. Look, I don'tcry over spilled milk. Everything I did was for duty, not forpublicity."
What Yeager did in 1947 was take a volatileexperimental aircraft to a speed that many were convinced would killhim. In subsonic tests that led up to the X-1's supersonic flight, theplane seemed to lose stability and be on the verge of disintegrating thecloser it got to Mach 1.
Undaunted, Yeager and his chief engineerJack Ridley pioneered the use of a "flying tail," transforming the rearhorizontal stabilizer into an active part of the aircraft. "It took theBritish, the French and the Soviets five years to find out that littletrick," he says with a laugh. "It gave us a jump on the world."
Sooneveryone knew not only Yeager's name, but also his effortlessly coolpersona in the face of danger. Even today, he describes the day healmost died when the X-1A spun out in 1953 as if it were just a bad dayat the office.
After rising at 3 a.m. to go duck hunting, Yeagercheated death in the X-1A. "When I landed they took me to the hospitalbut I was OK so they let me go home,' he says. "But I had to drive toL.A. to give a speech at the Army and Navy club. Got home at 2 a.m. andwent to bed. That was my day. That's the way we lived."
More than just flying
Thesedays, Yeager's exploits still command reverence, especially amongaviators. His website, chuckyeager.com, offers fans signed memorabilia,and his second wife, Victoria, 53, (first wife Glennis died of ovariancancer in 1990) is hopeful there could be interest in making anothermovie about the pilot's life.
"People know about the X-1, ofcourse, but there's so much more to him than that," says the formeractress who married the general in 2003.
As the sun starts to dropin the mountain sky, Yeager is keen to return to the glorious past.More tales about risking life and limb, told with a casualness thatbelies the obvious danger.
Wasn't he ever afraid? "What good doesit do to be afraid? It doesn't help anything," Yeager says. "You bettertry 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.