Chuck Yeager: Rest in Peace – Who’s the Best Pilot You Ever Saw?

Chuck Yeager departed this earth on December 7, 2020, at ninety-seven years of age. His now-permanent and not-unfamiliar domain? The high, wild, blue yonder which he often visited during his storied flying career. Chuck Yeager had “the right stuff,” the guts and courage to attempt and to break the storied “sound barrier” of aviation lore flying the Bell X-1 rocket plane on October 14, 1947. Yeager was also a World War II ace with eleven-plus “victories” to his credit in the skies over Europe flying the P-51 Mustang, Glamorous Glen, named after his first wife.

 My absolute favorite movie of all time, a classic, was released in 1983. It is aptly titled, The Right Stuff, and its story centers on Yeager’s storied flight which took place over the dry California desert at an obscure place called Muroc Army Airfield, later re-named Edwards Flight Test Center. Edwards was unknown to the public, a bare-bones government base where gutsy, pioneering test pilots like Yeager risked their necks flying the latest creations from designers at companies like Douglas, Lockheed, and Bell Aerospace. Edwards was a high-risk venture where many test pilots lost their lives while enduring the worst of living conditions…”and nobody knew their names,” as the film aptly states.

It was clear by the early nineteen-forties that propellers driven by powerful piston engines had aerodynamic limitations which capped achievable flying speeds to well under six-hundred miles per hour. By 1947, our earliest jet planes were already being flight-tested at Edwards. At the same time, Bell Aerospace had designed and built a rocket-powered plane called the Bell X-1. Its mission and purpose: to probe the so-called “sound barrier.” It was said that “the demon” lived out there at Mach 1, the technical term for the speed of sound waves traveling through air – nominally, seven hundred and sixty-seven miles per hour.

Many pilots and aeronautical engineers believed, based on theory and practical experience, that the shock-pressure waves which build up around a craft approaching Mach 1 would render the plane un-controllable and possibly tear it to pieces. Chuck Yeager thought otherwise and seized the opportunity in the X-1 to disprove the notion of an impenetrable barrier.  On October 14, 1947, Yeager, his engineer and close friend, Jack Ridley, and the X-1 cradled in the bomb-bay of a modified B-29 bomber, took flight over the wide desert surrounding Edwards. Yeager rode a tiny elevator-shelf down the belly of the bomber and stepped across the open void below into the cockpit of the X-1.

The B-29 released its bright orange cargo when all was ready, and history was made as Yeager ignited his multiple rocket stages and streaked across the skies over Edwards. Approaching Mach 1, the X-1 began to “get squirrely” and shake violently. A very loud BOOM rolled across the desert startling the crew, friends, and well-wishers gathered on the ground. Contrary to being an indication that Yeager and his craft had disastrously “bought the farm,” that (virtually) first sonic boom inserted Chuck Yeager into aviation’s highest pantheon of achievement.

For me, the four greatest milestones in aviation history are (in order of time):

-The first heavier-than-air flight of the Wright Brothers on December 17, 1903.

-The first solo transatlantic crossing by Charles Lindbergh, May 20/21, 1927.

-Breaking the sound barrier by Chuck Yeager on October 14, 1947.

-Jet engine development in England (Frank Whittle) and Germany (Hans Von Ohaim). Their work was largely done during the nineteen-thirties and early forties.

In a strikingly similar situation to that of Charles Lindbergh, the unknown air mail pilot in early 1927, no one knew the names of those test pilots who risked their necks at Edwards “pushing the envelope” of flight. Suddenly, in 1947, Chuck Yeager and the X-1 changed all that, and the new speed and altitude records that began to cascade from Edwards made their way into the newspapers with great coverage. Other names like Scott Crossfield, Bill Bridges, and Robert White became familiar to the public as did their rides: the Douglas Skyrocket and X-15, rocket successors to the X-1. Chuck Yeager and the Bell X-1 opened the door to a new age of flight. Nothing was ever quite the same going forward.

The Right Stuff portrays on film the new invaders of flight test centers like Edwards and Langley in Virginia. Among the many “rocket aces” headed for the the desert setting of Edwards (in the film) were a new breed of pilots, would-be astronauts for the new Mercury program to man the space rockets being designed in the mid-nineteen-fifties. Now, everybody knew their names, given the immense publicity program for the Mercury program launched by NASA.

As shocking as the technology of the Russian Sputnik satellite which was put into orbit in 1957, even more shocking to the Pentagon was the demonstrated rocket power and technology required to orbit such a payload (think national defense and inter-continental ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads).

The Right Stuff  colorfully delivers the sweeping panorama encompassing the Edwards Flight Test Center, Chuck Yeager, and the early Mercury astronauts. While the film is superbly entertaining, it remains accurate (at its core), but only after taking considerable liberties for the sake of story-telling. The cast portraying Yeager, John Glenn, Alan Shepherd, Gordon Cooper, etc. is fabulous and memorable. Few films in history have been both so entertaining and so full of historical fact. Despite the movie’s numerous liberties for entertainment’s sake, the thread of truthful story-telling remains. Chuck Yeager, himself, appears in the film playing a bit-part, and it is apparent that his presence on the set contributed many anecdotes and helped keep the film aligned with fact. It should be mentioned that the movie script’s treatment of astronaut Gus Grissom took excessive liberties in the eyes of many critics. And who could make up such a sweeping story? Author Tom Wolfe first introduced the drama in his book, The Right Stuff.

   “Who’s the Best Pilot You Ever Saw?”

In the film version, would-be Mercury astronaut Gordon “Gordo” Cooper, one of the new breed of pilots at Edwards and elsewhere who clamor for a reputation like Yeager’s, is fond of asking anyone who will pay heed, “Who’s the best pilot you ever saw?” Recall that all the astronaut candidates were trained fighter/test pilots in their respective services before being chosen for the space program. The answer in Gordo’s mind is obvious to anyone within earshot who can also see his broad grin. In case the listener doesn’t get it, Gordo cheerfully informs, “You’re looking at him!”

In one of my favorite scenes, well into the movie, Gordo, by now well-aware of Chuck Yeager’s skills as the test pilot at Edwards, is asked by a circle of un-initiated news reporters, “Who’s the best pilot you ever saw, Gordo?” That ever-present broad grin spreads across his face as he prepares to launch into his trademark response. But he hesitates, and surprisingly melts into serious contemplation while proceeding to relate in a slow, subdued voice, “Who’s the best pilot I ever saw? Well….there is this pilot …” at which point someone interrupts the quiet air of expectation enveloping Cooper and the circle of reporters, prompting the sudden return of Gordo’s smug smile and the blurted-out rejoinder, “Who’s the best pilot I ever saw? Why, you’re looking at him!”

Actor Dennis Quaid’s portrayal of Gordo Cooper throughout the film is first-rate. It is difficult to recall a film character so memorable, even years later.

If you have not seen The Right Stuff, I heartily recommend it for its overall entertainment value and its historical significance – a great real-life adventure, perhaps the greatest ever. Chuck Yeager never had the chance to be one of the original seven Mercury astronauts because a college degree was a pre-requisite for the embryonic space program. Yeager was a farm boy from West Virginia. Like so many early aviation greats, his ultimate accomplishments reflected an innate and insatiable curiosity, intelligence, practicality, and a persistence drive to learn and excel. His opportunities in aviation came thanks to the United States military, a fact which he gratefully acknowledged.

In 2002, on a weekend idyll with my wife in Carmel, California, we came across a downtown shop, no longer there, called “Wings” which catered to all-things aviation, from apparel, to posters, to coffee mugs, even to model airplanes. Like a kid in a candy store, I made my way through the merchandise finally checking out the beautifully sculptured wood models of famous aircraft on display. The one that caught my eye was a model of the Bell X-1, personally signed on the right wing in black sharpie by Chuck Yeager, himself. The $250 price tag was pretty steep for us at that time, but Linda gave me the go-ahead to purchase it.

In recent months, I have added a few more wood-modeled planes of fame to my collection, including my favorite, Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis.

The list is long and their exploits legendary: Charles Lindbergh, Chuck Yeager, Jimmy Doolittle, Eddie Rickenbacker, Manfred von Richthofen, R,A, “Bob” Hoover, Clarence “Bud” Anderson and so many men like Lindbergh who flew the treacherous U.S. air mail routes beginning in 1918.

“Who’s the best pilot you ever saw?”

You’re probably looking at him.

4 thoughts on “Chuck Yeager: Rest in Peace – Who’s the Best Pilot You Ever Saw?

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