Many people have talked or written about the man over the years, but I’m not sure anyone has truly done him justice. What can you say about a man who enlisted in 1941 and rose to be one of the top fighter pilots in the war? Who then became a test pilot and at the age of 24 became the first pilot to break the sound barrier in level flight? Who did so despite being busted up from a riding accident, and with the help of a friend hid both the injury and the section of broom handle he used to close the door to the plane since his injury wouldn’t let him do it otherwise? Who then rose through various commands in the Air Force and was prepared to bomb Russia in planes who’s pilots knew they could reach the targets, but not have enough fuel to get home and so would have to “walk home” from behind enemy lines? A man who’s work helped create the technology that launched the space age?
I had the honor of meeting him at the premier of “The Right Stuff” movie in Atlanta. Somewhere in the small aerospace library I donated to Purdue is the booklet from that premier, that had his and other autographs. I was especially glad to meet him, and to get that autograph. I had the feeling he was both amused and bemused at the attention being paid to him; and, I also suspected from that meeting and his writings that he was not entirely pleased with how he was portrayed in the book. After all, all he had done was to do the job no matter what, which was his basic ethos. Why make such a big deal about it? It was clear that he was uncomfortable being a celebrity, and struck me as a man who would be much more comfortable talking anything else than his celebrity over a beer.
His contempt for a later generation of pilots that would not/were not willing to fly to a target knowing they could not get back was clearly stated in his works. I can only imagine what he thought of the spoiled, coddled, and ignorant generation today. His ethos, that mirrored many of his generation and background, was that you worked hard and did the job no matter what and to the best of your ability; and, that you played hard as well. You took care of your people, and if regulations got in the way, well, if not broken they could be bent for the right reasons. After all, if you (and they) couldn’t have fun, what was the point?
If you have only read “The Right Stuff” or seen the movie, you are only getting a fraction of the man. Read his own works, and mourn not that such a man has passed at the ripe age of 97. Instead, give thanks that he and others like him lived as without them we would not have the aerospace world of today.
Godspeed Charles Elwood Yeager