Chuck Yeager, American Original

Chuck Yeager with the X-1 aircraft. (US Air Force)

Chuck Yeager was an American original who spawned many copies.

Yeager, who died in Los Angeles on Monday at the age of 97, is best known as the first man to break the sound barrier – and he did so with two broken ribs.

Out for a late night horseback ride after drinking a few beers at a bar near the Air Force base where he was stationed, Yeager was injured when he crashed into a fence. He didn’t even consider letting someone else do the barrier-crossing flight, which was only scheduled for two days later. He had a medic taping his ribs, and a friend and fellow pilot set up his X-1 so he could close his cockpit. Then he climbed into his X-1 and, after being detached from a B-29 23,000 feet above the Mojave Desert, fired forward, eventually reaching 700 mph.

Anyone wondering why Yeager chose to get drunk and ride a horse in the desert days before the biggest robbery of his life is not in possession of what Tom Wolfe called “the good things” in his book emblematic of the same name. Yeager had this extremely rare blend of technical expertise, courage, and boredom with life outside the cockpit in spades. Other pilots of all kinds admired him so much that, according to Wolfe, they started imitating his backwoods in West Virginia, which is why any flying audience member can do a decent copy of Yeager, even s ‘they never heard of it. him.

“It was,” Wolfe wrote, “the sledge of the fairest of all the good stuffers: Chuck Yeager.”

To understand Yeager and the men he flew with, you have to understand how dangerous it was to be a test pilot in the mid-20th century. According to Wolfe, 53% of career test pilots have died in the cockpit – and those are just training accidents; this does not include those who died in combat during the various wars of the century. Yeager wasn’t worried about the prospect of dying in flight. This fearlessness was part of what made him such a success.

“I’ll be back just fine – in one piece, or a whole bunch of pieces,” he said. Time in 1949.

It was not pure bravado; in 1949, Yeager had already had several brushstrokes with death.

In 1941, aged 18, Yeager joined the Air Force in an effort to avoid getting his hands dirty as an Army mechanic. Three years later, during his eighth mission with Mustang P-51s, he was shot down over German-occupied France. Members of the French resistance found him and put him in touch with a fellow American who had also been shot. The two men traveled the Pyrenees towards neutral Spain, finally taking refuge in a hut. German soldiers were alerted to their presence when Yeager’s partner hung his socks outside to dry them. The Germans opened fire on the cabin and the two barely escaped through a window, but not before Yeager’s new friend was shot in the knee. Yeager amputated part of the man’s damaged leg and transported it across the mountains to safety.

Although most of the French Resistance-assisted combat pilots were barred from returning to the skies, due to fear that they would compromise the identity of their aides if they were captured again, Yeager received a Dwight D. Eisenhower’s special dispensation after somehow finalizing a meeting. with the Allied Commander.

“I just wanted to meet two guys who think they are getting a raw deal sent home,” Eisenhower told Yeager and another pilot who had been shot down, Yeager later recalls.

The accomplished pilot returned to his cockpit on October 12, leading three fighter squadrons in a bombardment over Germany. He shot down five German planes, earning the coveted ace status in a single day. A month later, he shot down four planes in one day.

In addition to pushing advanced aerospace technology to its limits in training flights, combat was seen as the ultimate test for a fighter pilot, and Yeager jumped at the chance to get back in the saddle when the war of the Vietnam has erupted.

At the time, a celebrity thanks to his record-breaking supersonic flight – but not yet the legend that Tom Wolfe would make him when he published Good things 1979 – Yeager commanded a fighter squadron and flew 127 missions during the Vietnam War. He retired as an Air Force Brigadier General in 1975, before receiving a ceremonial promotion to Major General in 2005. There will be no other like him.

Rest in peace.

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