The Yeager Legacy

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There were four men in the cockpit of the B-29 that day and as a famous writer would later observe, no one knew their names. They soon would. It was July 4, 1947, and the B-29, piloted by Bob Cardenas, was flying west to the high desert from Buffalo, New York, with the Bell XS-1 slung under the open bomb bay. Flying with him was the impossibly small (and young) team that would, in just three months, write history by propelling the X-1 beyond Mach 1. Bob Hoover was chase, Jack Ridley was the project engineer and Chuck Yeager, the pilot. He was just 24.

With Yeager’s passing this week at the age of 97, only one man remains, Bob Cardenas, who just celebrated his 100th birthday in a profession not necessarily known for longevity. All four are known in the aviation world or certainly in the flight test community. But only Yeager ascended into that rarefied strata that put him on the cover of Time magazine in 1949, a year and a half after the fact.

From the sidelines with time and words to spare, writers, bystanders and the star-struck can speculate on why Yeager, a low time-in-grade Air Force captain among many of the same, rose to become the very definition of stick-and-rudder prowess under duress. Even Yeager himself said other pilots of his era—especially Hoover—had equivalent skills and similar experience. A reading of various sources quoting Yeager suggest a realistic dose of right time, right place.

In his first biography, “Across the High Frontier,” Yeager had no ready explanation of why Colonel Albert Boyd, then head of the test and evaluation command at Wright-Patterson field, culled him from a herd of highly competent pilots, some of whom had more flight test time and project experience. Perhaps Boyd was, as Yeager speculated, impressed by the young captain’s mechanical ability or, as Yeager critics sometimes claimed, saw him as young and expendable. Boyd would later say he picked Yeager because he was “rock solid” and reliable.

X1 team, left to right: Edward Swindell, flight engineer; Bob Hoover, backup pilot and chase; Bob Cardenas, B-29 pilot; Chuck Yeager, X-1 pilot; Dick Frost (rear) Bell-assigned chase pilot; Jack Ridley, project engineer.

What really mattered is what transpired during the X-1 test program and how quickly it moved. Just 101 days after arriving at Muroc, Yeager was famously photographed standing brashly atop the X-1’s thin wing as it was towed in after the Mach 1.05 flight on Oct. 14, 1947. The Air Force hushed the actual event, but by the time Yeager shook hands for the camera for the 1947 Collier Trophy—awarded a year later—he was no longer an obscure O-3 in the test command.

And there the pivot.

Yeager’s own words explain his canonization in the oddly awkward second-person prose William Lundgren used in “Across the High Frontier”: “They give you a medal here and trophy there. But you don’t fool yourself. You were losing out. In peacetime, military pilots have always been looked down on, especially Air Force pilots in Flight Test. You were nothing a few years back, but old diehards who couldn’t get by on the outside.”

“But this project opened a few closed eyes. It gave Air Force test pilots a prestige they’d never had before. All men who fly respect you now for what you’ve done together, for what they know you’ll go on to do. That, in addition to its assigned objective, is what this project accomplished.”

And Yeager did go on. Boyd had warned him that the Mach 1 flight would be as momentous as the Wrights’ at Kitty Hawk and the glare would be blistering. Perhaps that’s what Boyd saw when he described Yeager as “rock solid,” someone who could maintain his bearings under unyielding publicity. It’s possible that Yeager was uniquely qualified to carry the torch, for he did the appearances, gave the speeches and signed the autographs and described it all in a word that has lost some of its luster today: duty. He carried on with this long after he left the Air Force in 1975 as hundreds of EAA attendees can attest. He gave generously of his time for the Young Eagles program.

Boyd may have had his doubts, however. In one test report on an X-1 flight, Yeager was supposed to do a fly-by for dignitaries convened at Muroc but decided instead to point the airplane straight up with all four chambers roaring to disappear into the stratosphere over the high desert. He had no explanation other than impulse. Dick Frost, Bell’s chase pilot assigned to the project, may have been similarly disposed when he was startled to see Yeager roll the X-1 under power immediately after the drop on the Mach flight.

Then-Colonel Chuck Yeager.

All of this, of course, is part of the Yeager legend but also the Yeager legacy. When he was named the first commandant of  the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in 1962—a year after the first Soviet and U.S. space flights— Yeager was perfectly positioned to be an emissary from the leather helmet days of flight test to the emerging space age. Yeager stood astride both and ushered in the era of the highly educated, specialized flight test pilot just as conversant in science and engineering as in flying. The guy who went off the test card to roll a rocket plane was instrumental in building a new culture teaching pilots not to do that very thing. (I wonder if any still do.)

No less than Jimmy Doolittle summed up Yeager’s career even while it was in midstream: “In his own modest perspective, he was simply a test pilot who had a job to do. In the light of aeronautical achievement, however, he is one of the dedicated air pioneers who have repeatedly risked their lives to extend man’s knowledge and the horizons of flight.”

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16 COMMENTS

  1. Despite his impressive achievements and undoubted courage and capability, which I once found inspiring, my perception of him will always be tainted by allegations that he was a racist and a misogynist (even if these are not verifiable), as well as a suspicion that he exhibited various hazardous attitudes (which the rest of us are supposed to avoid).

    One can still honor the imperfect.

    • I had never heard those allegations about Yeager. I spoke with him years ago at Reno-Stead during the air races, and he was down-to-earth and considerate. I met Bob Hoover at a different event and he, too, was truly gracious, standing in line to get a hot dog, refusing to go ahead of others.
      But on your point, imperfect people built the world. If we didn’t honor them, we could honor no one.

    • David … “racist and misogynist.” Give it a rest, will ya !! This hero of a man just passed away. How’s about a little respect here. I’m sick and tired of people using those words. “Allegations” and “Unverifiable.” Tells me a lot about you.

      I spent 15 1/2 years of my life in uniform at Edwards supporting flight test. Near the end, I accidentally discovered Yeager’s Son, Mick, worked for me. He told me stories about his Dad which conflict with what you said. PB’s assessment is closer to the truth. Sadly, Mick preceded his Father in death.

    • Paul, I guess it’s ok for David to post completely unsubstantiated slanderous accusations of the highest order of one of our greatest aviation hero’s (who has just passed away and can’t even defend himself) if not the greatest, but, apparently my previous comment directed at David was so egregious that you had to remove it. I get it. Nice job Paul. I don’t think you would be singing the same tune if the shoe was on the other foot.

        • Despite your excellent given name and presumed critical thinking and worthwhile input, which I at first found hopeful, my opinion of you and your writings will always be tainted by your unsubstantiated and irrelevant claims and your apparent willingness to jump to the negative (even if that is unverified), as well as a suspicion that you exhibit various logical & critical thinking shortcomings (which the rest of us strive to avoid).

          But, despite my vigorously disagreeing with your viewpoint, I wholeheartedly support your right to present it. One must still defend the offensive.

    • > tainted by allegations that he was a racist and a misogynist (even if these are not verifiable

      David C.:

      I suspect you’re a young man, and in our current society, men your age are being brain-washed to allow other demographic groups to seize power.

      The reality is that all people are tribal, and feminists are openly misandrists, proven by the sexist labels “creepy men,” “toxic masculinity” and “men are trash” being commonly-used today in the media. Imagine men applying similar labels to all women – there would be outrage.

      There is no evidence against Yeager, however, there is a “woke” narrative today to diminish what historical figures accomplished if they were men, to again make other demographic groups look more equal (ie. more powerful.) That is the partly the reason statues have been toppled – to deny history.

      My advice to you is to talk to older men who accomplished things, to get a reality check.

      Regarding Chuck Yeager, realize that around half of the X-Plane test pilots died. (Muroc was renamed to Edwards after Capt. Glen Edwards was killed during a test flight.) Yeager (and Bob Hoover) were badly injured in accidents. The X-plane data they recorded is used in every single commercial airliner and US fighter today.

      Yeager was a genuine hero who risked his life for our country. Ask yourself, “Who are the people criticizing him, and what have they accomplished, if anything?”

      http://www.militarymuseum.org/EdwardsAFB.html

      James B.

  2. Oh really. So, my words directed at David, “please leave” is an insult and his words of Yeager, “my perception of him will always be tainted by allegations that he was a racist and a misogynist (even if these are not verifiable),” is not? Calling a man who has passed a racist and a misogynist without any proof whatsoever and no way for him to defend himself. Then, admitting you have no proof to the slanderous claim you just made is ok. Sorry Paul, I don’t buy it, not for a second. Go ahead, delete this post also. I expect nothing less.

  3. A while ago I was talking to a young man doing his private pilot training. Some how the subject of Yeager came up. “Who’s that” he asked ? I tried to explain but I wasn’t doing a good job of getting through the significance of his achievements, until I said “he was only 3 years older than you when he made history, but ultimately his lesson is timeless. He was a young man who chose to make a difference”.

    A personal and probably futile plea. Please be civil when posting, there is more than enough invective out there already. I teach formation flying and when I debrief a flight I follow the formation convention of directing criticism at the position not the person. It wasn’t Mike who was way too acute on the rejoin it was number 2. The idea is that I am not criticizing the person I am being critical of what happened.

    You can disagree without making it personal……

  4. One problem with becoming a legend of any sort – test pilot, athlete, etc. – is that you transcend into a larger than life persona. Paul’s comments about the glare of the spotlight and being able to handle it are very appropriate, because a lot of people can’t. And, people like Yeager and Neil Armstong weren’t seeking the notoriety, they were just doing their jobs and having fun doing it. History and chance, not the person, often decide when legends are created. The glare of the spotlight also illuminates imperfections we may not like to see. We need to remember that famous people are still just people, with the warts and foibles all humans possess. Today we need to celebrate Yeager’s accomplishments and let it go at that.

  5. Yeager, like all of us, was a product of his time. Some of us are able to progress with the culture. Others, especially those who achieve great success and fame early on, tend to associate that success with the accepted attitudes, mores, and behaviors at that time.

    There is ample evidence that Yeager’s attitudes and behaviors remain locked in a pre-Mad-Men era, not unlike a great many of his cohort, whom we let off the hook because “that’s just Grandpa”. If you are over 50, examine your attitude towards bi-racial transgender kids with green hair using plural pronouns for themselves. Would you want that reviewed in your obituary?

    Yeager’s achievements were historic and remarkable in this forum. Since none of us here knew him personally (I assume) his human shortcomings are irrelevant.

    • I think Chip encapsulates it nicely. My sole interaction with Gen. Yeager while in the Air Force was less than inspiring, and I am sure a number of his fellow neighbors/HOA members from much more recent times have similar memories tucked away. No great surprise, he was a human being, imperfect as we all are.

      What is more important in the context of his life is that he he served his nation well. He was a great pilot, he handled the fame that built from his seminal exploit better than could reasonably be expected, and wile the term “hero” has been so degraded in recent years it is now almost meaningless, you could legitimately hold that he earned that honorific when it actually meant something. Our thanks, and RIP.