Chuck Yeager, 89, still in the air

I had just finished reading a piece by Tom Wolfe on Yeager (an exerpt from The Right Stuff).

In today’s news: Chuck Yeager retraces history….

(CNN) — Chuck Yeager retraced history on Sunday, 65 years to the minute, as the first test pilot to break the sound barrier, taking to the skies once again to fly faster than the speed of sound.
The 89-year-old Yeager broke the sound barrier in a U.S. Air Force F-15 at 10:24 a.m. over the Mojave Desert, the same location where he first flew past Mach 1 on October 14, 1947, the military said in a statement.

Here’s an overview: He was born February 13, 1923, in West Virginia. Joined the U.S. Army Air Forces, as a private. Quickly promoted (because of his exceptional eyesight and ability), he flew P-51s during WW II. Shot down over France, escaped to Spain with the help of the Resistance. When the War ended, he had 11.5 kills – one of them an ME-262 (jet fighter).

The rest, as they say, is history. He retired from the Air Force a Brigadier General, later promoted to Major General.

Here are some parts from Wolfe’s chapter on Yeager:

By the end of the war, he had thirteen and a half kills. He was twenty-two years old.

(Wikipedia has 11.5; two were unofficial – he didn’t get the counts on technicalities.)

After the war, he was selected to go to Muroc Field (today, it’s Edwards Air Force Base. Up in the high desert, it had miles and miles of flat land, dry lake beds.

The luxurious officer’s quarters were “a few tarpaper shacks”. It was tents for everybody else.

By the end of the war, the race was on to achieve an airspeed of Mach 1 (about 760 mph at sea level; 660 mph at 40,000 feet). It turned out that there were serious problems getting there. At about Mach .8 or so, the aircraft buffeted violently; the controls seemed to lock up. Planes crashed; pilots died. That’s where the term “sound barrier” came from.

Test pilots at Murdoc liked to have the occasional “wee dram” at the local cantina: Pancho’s Fly Inn, run by Mrs Pancho Barnes. (That’s a whole nother story.)

Meanwhile, the X-1 is sitting on the runway, ready to go up. Yeager signed on as a regular Army Captain, $283/month.

Two days before the flight for record, Yeager, his wife Glennis, and a few other pilots moseyed over to Pancho’s.

Yeager didn’t go to Pancho’s and knock back a few because two days later the big test was coming. Nor did he knock back a few because it was the weekend. No, he knocked back a few because night had come and he was a pilot at Muroc. In keeping with the tradition of Flying & Drinking, that was what you did. … That was what you did if you were a pilot at Muroc and the sun went down.

He and Glennins decided it would be great to take two of Pancho’s saddle horses and go riding out under the moonlight. On the way back, at full tilt, the horse balks at the gate (which wasn’t supposed to be closed). Yeager and the horse take separate trajectories.

The next day, his side hurts like hell. If he went to the base doctor, he’d be grounded (and somebody else would fly the X-1). So he jumps on a motorcycle and drives out to the nearest other doctor, who tells him, well, you’ve got two broken ribs – I’ll put some tape on you, now just keep your right arm perfectly still and don’t do anything for two weeks, and you’ll be fine.

That was one of those “not an option” things. The morning of the flight, Glennis drives him to the field. There’s one small problem: one of the final pre-flight checklist items was that he had to push a lever with his right hand, to lock the cockpit door. His right arm would’t move that way.

The flight engineer, Jack Radley, gets a janitor to cut a length of broom handle. That’s what Yeager used.

He also made for himself a “crash helmet” from a big leather football helmet. (Pilots tended to get knocked around the cockpit pretty heavily, and he didn’t want to get knocked unconscious.)

The X-1 was hauled up to 23,000 feet under a Boeing B-29, and dropped. At 43,000 feet, he reached Mach 1.06.

The date was October 14, 1947.

Today, October 14, 2012, he flew an F-15 at Mach 1.3.

In between then and now, he flew the X-1 to Mach 1.45, at 71,900 feet.


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