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If you like Chuck Yeager's story, you might also like:
Tom Clancy,
Edmund Hillary,
Paul MacCready,
Story Musgrave,
Norman Schwarzkopf,
Alan Shepard,
James Stockdale
and Tom Wolfe

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Chuck Yeager
 
Chuck Yeager
Profile of Chuck Yeager Biography of Chuck Yeager Interview with Chuck Yeager Chuck Yeager Photo Gallery

Chuck Yeager Interview (page: 7 / 8)

First Man to Break the Sound Barrier

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  Chuck Yeager
You had a little encounter with Neil Armstrong, back in test pilot days. Was that in the X-15?

Chuck Yeager Interview Photo
Chuck Yeager: No, not the X-15. The X-15 which Neil was flying, about six other pilots were flying at the same time like Pete Knight, Bob White, Bob Rushworth and Joe Engle, it flies just like the old X-1. The X-15 is launched from a mother aircraft, within gliding distance of a dry lake bed. Since the X-15 was getting up to speeds of four and five times the speed of sound, you obviously couldn't launch it over Rogers Dry Lake. It had to be backed up and launched over a dry lake bed, like Mud Lake in Nevada or Smith's Ranch Lake, up east of Fallon, Nevada, or some of the Panament Lakes in Nevada, and then make its run and recover at Rogers Dry Lake. If the dry lakes are wet, you can't land safely an airplane that comes in at a couple hundred miles an hour. You can tear off the gear or skid, and end up tumbling.

I was running the Aerospace Research Pilots School at that time, some time around '65, when NASA -- or Paul Bickel, who was the administrator of NASA there at Edwards -- called me and said, "What do you think about Smith's Ranch Lake?" I said I was just up there yesterday in a B-57 looking at it, and it's wet. He said, "My guys say it isn't wet." So I said, "Be my guest." That's exactly what I said. He said, "Would you go up there and land on it?" I said, "No, I won't. It's wet." And he said, "Would you ride with Neil in one of our airplanes?" I said, "Yeah, as long as I'm not responsible for anything that happens."


So I went over to NASA, and they had a T-33 and Neil was flying it. I took my chute and helmet over, and we just wore light flying suits and gloves. I got in the back seat and sat there. Neil taxied out and took off on the dry lake bed, we fly up to Smith's Ranch Lake, he backs off, comes in and he's going to touch down. I said, "Neil, the lake is wet." He said, "No I think it looks dry enough for me to just touch down, let it roll, and I'll add power and come back off." I said, "You get on that lake surface in a T-33, and it starts sinking in, you're never going to overcome the drag with the power, if you are at about 5000 feet elevation where the lake bed is." And that's exactly what happened. He came in, touched down, the airplane starts slowing down, he puts full power on it, it keeps slowing down and, finally, it just stops and sinks in the mud. We are sitting there, shut it off, now what? We are thirty miles from a road, it's about 3:30 in the afternoon, it's cold and you've got 30 miles to walk with a thin flying suit on. Fortunately, Paul Bickel sent a Gooney Bird, a C-47 that NASA had down there, to follow us because he suspected something might happen. Good insurance. We sat there for about half an hour, sitting on the wing of the airplane. You could walk on the lake bed and it would leave footprints, but pretty soon the old Gooney Bird homed into sight. I got back in the airplane, put the battery switch on and turned the radio on. I said, "We only got one choice. If you land over next to the edge of the lake and keep the airplane rolling, you probably won't sink, and then we can get back off the ground. Give us time to walk over to the edge of the lake. Don't slow the airplane down. Keep the door open and we'll jump aboard." And he did. He landed and slowed it down. He was leaving a pretty good rut in the lake, but he kept the power on and as he came by we ran along and jumped in the back end of the airplane. When we got back to Edwards, it was after dark. The T-33 sat up there, the Navy went out and recovered it a week later. It was just an experience. You know things because you live on those lake beds, like I had since 1945. And the guys, they don't use their head. That's a good example.


It's not the most flattering picture of the man that walked on the moon.

Chuck Yeager: Well, Neil was a pretty good engineer. He wasn't too good an airplane driver.

What do you think of the direction NASA is going in today? What do you think the big priority should be?

Chuck Yeager: I think that basically we are stuck with the shuttle. It's that simple, because of narrow-mindedness and not looking at what's available in the world. NASA doesn't have any choice; it's pretty well hamstrung as to what its goals are in the future and what they can accomplish. Since it's the only kid we've got, we've got to support it. If we look at the laboratories that we are building, space vehicles out in permanent orbit and also the moon as a possible launching site for deep space exploration -- manned and unmanned -- they should be supported about the same amount as far as I'm concerned. The year that I spent on the President's space commission, developing a master plan for what the United States should do in space for the next fifty years, was very interesting in that you went through all of these things. That was the year prior to the shuttle accident, and we went to our industry to get answers. What do you think we can do in space? We went to the academic world and NASA, who is supposed to be our experts in space. The one thing that we noticed when we started going to the different NASA centers, like JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), Marshall and others, is that these people don't even talk to each other! They don't even know what each division is doing. The different levels of supervision at NASA don't even communicate. For a whole year we sat and looked at this, and then bang, the shuttle accident happens, because of those characteristics. It was unfortunate.

Today, NASA has cleaned up its act quite a bit. They are being a little overcautious, which is costing them in payload with the shuttle. Also, they are over-budgeted. They don't get more money than they need, they are just spending a heck of a lot more than they need to. It's unfortunate, but that's the only space program that we have. Except the Air Force has been quietly developing space weapons systems the last 15 years, just for its own defense. That has paid off now in things like the Patriot missiles.

If you had been in charge that morning, would you have taken the fire call concerns more seriously?

Chuck Yeager: Definitely. You see, that's the problem. There were no lines of communication between the different levels of supervision in NASA, so these guys don't know that there is a problem. I think there are a lot of things that entered into the shuttle accident, and one was the PR pressure of getting that launch off on schedule. The press is there. And that, plus a lack of communication and not paying attention to red flags. A lot of this is Monday morning quarterbacking, but it did happen and it shouldn't have happened.

I have some sense that the shuttle was sort of flown by committee.

Chuck Yeager: It was built by Rockwell to specifications and simulators, and the guys flew it. A lot of people raised their eyebrows when the Soviets flew a similar space vehicle from launch to touch down, without a crew aboard. The shuttle can do that. It just so happens the guys take over on base leg, and touch down on Rogers Dry Lake. They don't have to.

In 1968 you were promoted to the rank of brigadier general. You once referred to that as your "miracle star," didn't you? Why?

Chuck Yeager Interview Photo
Chuck Yeager: I don't know. That's probably a misconception. A miracle star. I figured I was pretty lucky to make general. I only had a high school education. I came in as a GI -- an enlisted man -- and worked up. I ran a pretty good outfit. And always had good wings and the guys liked me.

That's putting it mildly. Talk if you will about some of the other historic aircraft you flew. The X-5, for instance.

Chuck Yeager: Well, the X-5 was the first variable swept wing airplane that we built. It was just one of the family of "X" airplanes, meaning research. Like the X-1 was supersonic, X-2 was hydrosonic, the X-3 was supersonic intake ducts, the X-4 was a semi-tailless airplane and the X-5 was a variable swept wing airplane. It was designed to sweep its wings from 20 degrees back to 60 to see what mach drag did on variable swept wings. We built two of them. A guy named Ray Popson got killed in one, in a spin, and we finished the other one up and it's back in the Air Force Museum in Wright Field now, just like a lot of them. We built two X-4s and I flew all of them. One is at the Air Force Academy and one is in the museum. The X-3, there is one still, I think, back in the Air Force Museum. The X-2, we lost them.

They can't all be gems, I guess. How did you feel about the F-104 after that?

Chuck Yeager Interview Photo
Chuck Yeager: Oh, I flew it a lot, sure. I flew it a lot after that.

So in general you feel it's a good plane?

Chuck Yeager: Yeah. You see, we used it in the school for space training. It gave you a minute and a half of zero G, gravity-free flight, above 75,000 feet with a pressure suit and a hydrogen peroxide control, same as a space capsule, and you can do it pretty cheaply. But then in 1966, the Air Force was out of the space business, so we canceled everything.

Looking back on all those planes that you flew over the years, and that you still fly, did you have any favorites?

Chuck Yeager: You don't. You like the P-51 because you flew it in combat. It was a good airplane. But today, the newer the airplane, the better it is. It's just like a car. You get a 1991 Cadillac, you got high tech, a lot of computer technology in it, versus a 1980 Cadillac. It's just better and more fun to drive.

There are a lot more complex controls and use of the computer in planes today.

Chuck Yeager: We ran into a problem back in '50s, when we were able to fly airplanes at supersonic speeds. All the fighter aircraft that we have designed, even from World War I to World War II, has to be very maneuverable. It also has to have a little bit of stability so that the pilot can handle it. The fighters that we designed in World War I and World War II, and even in Korea, those fighters had a limited stability capability and were made very maneuverable. Now, when we were able to smoke these airplane out beyond the speed of sound and get a supersonic flow over the whole airplane, they became very stable. We found ourselves in a position in the '50s and early '60s, that when these airplanes were flying at supersonic speeds, although they were very maneuverable under the speed of sound, when you got them above the speed of sound, they were too stable to maneuver.

Chuck Yeager Interview Photo
So we had to back off and make fighters very unstable down at slow speeds so that they would be maneuverable above the speed of sound. And what this meant was that when we designed airplanes like the 104, 105 and the F-4 Phantom 2, they were so unstable at low speeds, you had to put stability augmentation systems in like pitch dampeners, yaw dampeners, and roll dampeners that sort of stabilized these airplanes so the pilots wouldn't have too much trouble flying them. Consequently, that's where we found ourselves in the '60s time period with airplanes, and it was a problem.

Chuck Yeager Interview Photo
These airplanes, like an F-4 Phantom 2, when you turn the airplane, if you exceed the maximum angle of attack, it will spin out. And if it gets into a spin, it's so unstable, you can't get it out of the spin. So in the spring of 1970, a new technology came along, computer technology, and that made it possible for the Air Force then to design a flight control system that the computer used. We could then program the computer that was flying the airplane to never let that airplane exceed the maximum angle of attack, or yaw angle, regardless of what the pilot called for. Because when you are dog-fighting, you don't pay a lot of attention, you are in a high G-load, attacking things like that. Well, this really paid off. Then the F-16 came along some 18 years ago, in the '70s, with a computer flight control system in it that was programmed never to exceed the maximum angle of attack, and that gave us a very maneuverable airplane at supersonic speeds, and it was a fall-out from this computer.

What was happening also, all of our fighters, like F-4 Phantom 2s, were carrying 28 different kinds of weapons. To manage each of those weapons requires a checklist. It looks like Sears and Roebuck's catalogue. And what happened, because of the computer capacity in these computer flight control systems, we could then program all of the data necessary to manage all these weapons that you could carry, and that brought about a requirement for the cathode ray tube in the cockpit, just like a table-top computer. The first F-16s didn't have them. The F-18, which used digital computer flight control systems, had cathode ray tubes so that we could program all the data into that computer to manage these weapon systems, and the cathode ray tube was put in there so that the computer could communicate with the pilot and give him the data necessary to manage the weapons. That's where we are today, everything is computer enhanced.

Chuck Yeager Interview Photo
We have gone to infrared, like the films you see with the laser spot guided bombs, or optically guided bombs. That's all infrared that you are looking at; the pilot can work at night as well as he can in the daytime. And that's the way things are progressing. A lot of new technology is coming about now, especially stealth. Stealth is the secret to survival today because every country in the world has radar in air defense systems, and if we can neutralize that 50 years of research in radar with stealth technology, that neutralizes all the air defenses that you are exposed to. Like the F-117, which was built some ten years ago, is not a good flying airplane, it's not even supersonic, but it does have stealth technology. It can go in and drop laser-guided bombs very accurately.

Today, with airplanes like the new advanced technical fighter family, the F-22 and Y-23, these are a new advanced family of stealth fighters which fly at mach two, and they supercruise, which means you don't use afterburner in them. They supercruise out at very fast speed and they have stealth technology so you can evade any radar. So that's what's happening today.

Is it difficult for a pilot today to be aware of the computer, and fly the plane at the same time?

Chuck Yeager Interview Photo
Chuck Yeager: No, it's your job. It's just like driving a car and talking over a cellular phone while you are driving. It's real easy because you are raised with it. In fact, computer technology is something that makes you a lot more effective in your airplane. A pilot today flying something like an F-18 or an F-20, F-22 or 23, is probably ten times more effective in that fighter than he was just three or four years ago. The new technology that's going into smart bombs and missiles is really making a fighter very effective. The one thing you have to also realize, is that the defensive missiles, air-to-air missiles that some guy is shooting at you, is also going up that technology line, and they are becoming very lethal.

How would you account for the rather swift assertion of air superiority the U.S. took over Iraq (in 1991)?

Chuck Yeager: Basically technology: the laser-guided bombs, optically guided bombs, the initial stealth capability with the 117s going in and neutralizing a lot of the command and control network and radar network. It puts them in a very bad place. Also, AWACS, the airborne warning radar. Airplanes are sitting up there looking at everything that's going on over the whole country of Iraq, on the ground as well as in the air and are also tied into the communications systems of Iraq. That's the reason the guys that are going in know exactly what they are faced with. Also, the AWACS airplane uses electronic counter measure systems against radar, and other weapons detection systems. The airplanes are carrying electronic counter measure pods on them and they are very effective.

A pretty different scene than back in World War II.

Chuck Yeager Interview Photo
Chuck Yeager: Yeah, but that's evolution. Like Teflon skillets and microwave ovens. That's the way it goes.

Do you think the same skills are nevertheless necessary for a great pilot today?

Chuck Yeager: Yes, sure. He's very much in the loop. In fact, he is very good at what he does, and he has to be in the loop. The airplane won't do it without him. And all this computer enhancement just makes him better at what he does.

But you still have got to have the same guts too.

Chuck Yeager: There are a lot of duty-oriented pilots out there today. In fact, they all are. They are very dedicated, as we were in World War II, Vietnam or Korea. And it shows up today too.

What about the remote control aspect of airplanes?

Chuck Yeager Interview Photo
Chuck Yeager: Remote control, you will see maybe in the future, six or eight years down the road. Ten percent of your fighter force will probably be remote control stuff. You control from AWACS airplanes, small, miniature fighters with no crew, launched from C-130s or ground launched with air to air missiles and sensors. You can sit there and look out of a video camera out of the nose, in your AWACS airplane, in a nice soft chair, drinking coffee and shoot the guys down. It's pretty neat, a pretty neat setup.

Do you think technology has removed a lot of the stress of being a pilot?

Chuck Yeager: No. You are still exposed to high G loads, and also you are in a hostile environment. Anytime you're smoking along at mach two in an airplane, depending on a piece of mechanical equipment to keep you alive, the stress is still there, especially the high G loads. Airplanes we flew, like in World War II or Vietnam, were stressed for 7.33 Gs. The airplanes today -- F-16, 18, 20, 22, 23 -- are stressed for nine Gs.

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