BOOK REVIEW: YEAGER An Autobiography by General Chuck Yeager

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The main scene is southern California, Muroc air strip, later known as Edwards Air Force Base, where an observer might see an airplane climb 50,000 feet straight up– that’s ten vertical miles above the desert sands. The main character – born as a West Virginia hillbilly in 1923, and lacking any college education, Chuck Yeager enlisted in the Army Air Corps at the beginning of World War II and eventually became recognized as the the nation’s top test pilot and the first person to go “faster than the speed of sound”. The story is the golden age of air flight.

Near the end of the war jet engines were replacing propeller driven planes, allowing speeds of up to several hundred miles an hour faster. No one knew if there was a top speed of sound, but the vibration of a plane at around 700 miles per hour merited caution. Yeager had several qualities distinguishing him from the average pilot. His plane was shot down over German-occupied France during he war; he escaped capture, and survived with the aid of French resistance fighters. He made it over snow-covered mountains on foot to neutral Spain.

He had remarkably clear eyesight, 20/10, enabling him to spot approaching enemy aircraft before they could see him. He knew what he wanted, which of all else was to fly. He totaled up vastly more hours than average test pilots, giving him more knowledge of the planes he flew.

He also could make quick, usually correct, decisions. Moving into a new training base with his squadron, he visited the local USO office to see what chance there would be for a dance night. The social director, a very pretty girl named Glennis, was irritated at this request.. “You expect me to whip up a dance and find thirty girls on three hours notice?”

“No,” Chuck said, “you’ll only need to come up with twenty-nine, because I want to take you.”

She could barely understand his West Virginia accent, but she arranged to get the Elks Hall for these new soldiers in town. She and Chuck went on to have a romace and a happy marriage, four children and an air force career that included postings to Germany, Russia, Vietnam, and Pakistan. He retired with a one-star general’s rank; he could have gone on to two-star rank, but officers that high are not permitted to pilot planes, and his work as a test pilot was more important to him.

Chuck had another characteristic about him. In most of his photographs (and this book has many of them) he is self-confident and smiles with his eyes as much as his mouth, and that says a lot about his personality, especially considering that his job includes a real possibility of sudden death any day if something goes wrong in a new plane he is testing.

One day, a new model jet had failure of its total electrical system. He had no control of the engine, nor radio communication, the plane began to drop from 40,000 feet. He had control over nothing except the mechanical position of the ailerons, elevators and rudder. He knew he had to jettison the remaining fuel before he hit the ground but was unable to see if it was actually happening. He didn’t panic, but with only 5,000 feet altitude remaining, he leveled into a glide and lined up with the runway, setting the plane gently enough to avoid collapsing the landing gear. He had more skill than most because he spent more time flying.

Most autobiographies are written solely by one person. Chuck Yeager, freely admitting his own grammar is atrocious, uses another author at times (Leo Janis) and sometimes a page or two by close acquaintances (Chuck’s wife Glennis, or senior air force or lesser officers or air base associates( Colonel Albert Boyd, Pancho Barnes, Jacqeline Cochran, and others.)

General Yeager sums up his life pretty well on the book’s back cover:

“I don’t deny that I was damned good. If there is such a thing as ‘the best’, I was at least one of the title contenders. I’ve had a full life and enjoyed just about every damned minute of it because that’s how I lived.”

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