Born on Feb. 13, 1923 Brigadier General Charles Elwood Yeager was a US Air Force (USAF) officer, flying ace, and record-setting test pilot who in 1947 became the first pilot in history confirmed to have exceeded the speed of sound in level flight.
Yeager is referred to by many as one of the greatest pilots of all time, and was ranked fifth on Flying’s list of the 51 Heroes of Aviation in 2013. Throughout his life, he flew more than 360 different types of aircraft over a 70-year period, and continued to fly for two decades after retirement as a consultant pilot for the USAF. He passed away on Dec. 7, 2020.
I had a chance to get a glimpse of Yeager the man: Early in my career, just after my first deployment, I was asked to take one of our brand new F-14Ds to Edwards Air Force base for their annual air show. I was eager to go. I couldn’t wait to see Edwards and show off the Navy’s newest and baddest machine.
Unfortunately, our “brand new” Super Tomcat had just returned from six months at sea and was horribly splotched with anti-corrosion treatments and 6 months of grease that was imbedded in the porous paint. It was leaking hydraulic fluid and fuel and if you looked closely enough, you could find a little rust. It was a machine of war, not for decoration, and it looked it.
Well, when we got to the air show flight line, we were relegated to the very last spot, well away from all the high gloss USAF test aircraft and their air show birds. We were at least two hundred yards away from the air show proper and the crowds. As we were committed to staying by our machine to answer questions, it looked like it was going to be kind of a quiet day for us.
Chuck Yeager used to open the Edwards show with a sonic boom. That day, he was in an F-16 and kicked off the show with a very nice pass. A few minutes later, General Yeager was in a golf cart being driven down the flight line waving to the crowd. We were a long way away, too far away to see or be seen, but just as they were going out of sight, I thought I saw Yeager look in our direction, elbow the driver, and point at us.
The friggin’ golf cart suddenly turns towards our filthy machine. He cut through the crowd and continued looking our way. I had a distinct “oh crap” moment and wished so badly I could have washed the jet before we came. We were the only Navy jet there, and while more capable than anything on the field, we hardly looked it. He drove by shiny jet after shiny jet, each one with USAF aircrew standing out in front, ignoring each one, driving straight for us. He pulled up in front, got out with a HUGE smile and asked me how I like my new hotrod. He asked a few questions about our deployment and how it performed over Iraq, asked about me and my RIO, where we were from, all while looking around the Super Tom. He marveled at the size of our hook, (they all do), was fascinated by our long wave IR search and track system, and generally ignored our fighter’s poor material condition. Toward the end of our brief visit, I wanted to apologize for my machine’s appearance, and was about to say something when he looked me straight in the eye and said,
“Thanks for bringing a real fighter to the show, Jungle. You’re the only one here.”
There were plenty of shiny USAF fighters but I knew exactly what he meant. They didn’t count because they were test articles and hadn’t been dirtied up or bloodied. At first I thought our encounter was because he was being some kind of gracious host, wanting us to feel welcome. But I quickly realized as I watched him drive away that even after all the fame and success he enjoyed as a test pilot, he was really just a fighter pilot who missed being in the fight.
God Speed, Chuck.
Photo credit: Robert Jones, U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy
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