As usual, I was on the internet Monday night, scrolling thru various news pages, when I was stopped short by the blaring headline on the U.K.’s Daily Mail site.
Chuck Yeager was dead!
The headline caught me unawares. I had not thought of Chuck Yeager in ages, and I admit that at the instant the reality of his passing hit me, I was brought to tears. And all through the rest of that evening, the tears continued – which surprised me because it wasn’t intentional.
It was an automatic reaction to the death of a man who played only a small part in my life and yet, judging by how I reacted to the news of his death, he had impressed me deeply. I felt as though I had lost a close friend. I remained close to tears all through the evening as I read of his life and death and remembered the small part he played in my life.
I’ll be honest, I don’t remember the year, but I was doing talk radio in San Francisco, KSFO/KGO Radio. As I worked with my producer, we had the opportunity to schedule an interview with Chuck Yeager. I knew who he was – a real hero in war and peace and a man who set aeronautic records – especially by being the first person to break the sound barrier.
He did that piloting a Bell aircraft X-1 over the Mojave desert in California on Oct. 14, 1947 – he was 24 – and with that the reality of the U.S. space program began.
That was reason enough for wanting to schedule the interview, but the rest of his accomplishments in war and peace made it more important. It didn’t hurt that Tom Wolfe wrote about his exploits in his bestselling book, “The Right Stuff,” which later became a hit movie.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when Yeager arrived for the interview, but I was more than pleasantly surprised. Rather than someone full of himself, the man arrived alone, wearing casual clothes and a flight jacket, and he greeted me like an old friend.
He introduced himself, I did the same, and we sat down and began to talk like good friends. What struck me the most was his accent. Yeager was a West Virginia native, and despite his many exploits across the world, he never lost that accent.
He didn’t call me Ms. Simpson or Barbara – it was “Barb,” with that West Virginia twang. And it stayed “Barb” all through the hour we talked. He made me feel like a friend, and I loved the warmth of his responses as we talked. It was talk radio at its best and something I’ve never forgotten.
This was a man who had only a high school education from a school in the West Virginia hills, yet he reached the heights of aviation and the military. As he told the story, the first time Yeager was in a plane, he got sick to his stomach – but that didn’t deter him. He had enlisted in the Army Air Forces out of high school as a mechanic but joined a flight program and got his pilot wings and appointment as flight officer in March 1943 in Arizona. He then was commissioned as a second lieutenant after arriving in England for training.
He flew in World War II, logging more than 10,000 hours in the air. He was an ace, shooting down five German planes in one day and overall downing 13. The man was fearless.
In March, 1944, Yeager was shot down over France on his eighth mission. Despite injuries, he survived and was hidden by the French underground. He eventually made it to Spain and returned to his English base. In October, he was put back into combat.
As he wrote in his memoir, he said that through all his years as a pilot, he had made sure to “learn everything I could about my airplane and my emergency equipment.”
As he said, “I was always afraid of dying. Always.”
It’s almost ironic that Yeager died on Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day. It’s a day we remember for heroism, and now it’s a day we need to remember the life and accomplishments of a man who made our country safer and better. That man is Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine called his death “a tremendous loss to our nation.” His “pioneering and innovative spirit advanced America’s abilities to set our nations dreams soaring into the jet age and space age.”
When a statue of him was dedicated at the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards, it was said Yeager was “the most righteous of all those with the right stuff.”
For me, remembering Chuck Yeager means remembering the sound of his goodbye with that West Virginia twang – “Goodbye, Barb, It was great to meet you.”
And the memory makes me cry. Thank you, Chuck. God bless you.
This article appeared originally on WND.