Chuck Yeager Interview (page: 8 / 8)
First Man to Break the Sound Barrier
What are you flying these days?
Chuck Yeager: I stay current in F-15, F-16s. I've been working on the F-23 for about four-and-one-half years, from its inception. I still fly F-4s and T-38s. Since I retired in '75 I've had a job at Edwards as a consultant test pilot, a civil service job. The only reason I got it was so they wouldn't lose my expertise or long experience. It's interesting, because if you lay off a year, you will never catch up. Things are happening very fast. I've been lucky. I still have the same eyes I had as a kid, and stay in pretty good shape.
That's true, a lot of pilots have retired at your age. In your on career, what do you think was the role of being in the right place at the right time?
Chuck Yeager: That has a lot to do with it, beginning in the right place at the right time. Being able to take advantage of the situation, because of experience. A lot of luck is involved.
You've said that it wouldn't have done you a lot of good to be born the year the Concorde first flew.
Chuck Yeager: I had the fun of flying prop airplanes, the early jets, rockets and watching the space program. And also being able today to participate in a lot of the research that is going on at Edwards Air Force Base. It's interesting. I flew the F-15E, which is the premier airplane, air to ground with auto terrain following and infrared laser capability. It was an interesting program and the airplane is doing a very good job.
Looking back at your career, there were several points where many people would have retired and sort of rested on their laurels -- 1947, '53 -- but I don't think you ever considered that.
Chuck Yeager: No. It would be boring sitting around drinking beer, watching TV. It's a lot more fun to be interested in something and be involved in it. I don't spend all my life in airplanes. I have a lot of fun hunting and fishing, working on my car, doing woodwork or things like that.
What advice would you have for a young person who wants to be a pilot today?
Chuck Yeager: Don't be too narrow in your goals. That's the one thing. You say, "I'm going to be an astronaut when I grow up." He sits there and doesn't see all kinds of good opportunities go by him, that he could latch on to.
Do something that you like. Forget about the pay for Christ's sakes. Regulate your style of living, your lifestyle, to fit your income. Just have fun in your job, that's the main thing. Too many people think, "Well I've gotta make so much money, I've gotta get this kind of a paying job." And it's a strain to make ends meet. Everybody that I've ever seen that enjoyed their job were very good at it. That included flying airplanes too.
[ Key to Success ] Passion
You've talked about the word "duty" a lot. But it seems that fun also played a big role in your work.
Chuck Yeager: To enjoy your job, fun enters into it. There are a lot of long hauls, and hard knocks, but in the end, you look back, it was fun.
There is a well-known quote from Thomas Edison about genius being "one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." You obviously had a great talent in your field, but you really worked at it as well, didn't you?
Chuck Yeager: Yes. Because in the end, experience is what counts. The more experience you have, the better you are. And that's true of anything you do in airplanes, dogfighting in combat, or anything like that. Your chances of coming out on top depend on your experience level. The more experience you can get, the better chance you have of surviving in a war, or in any situation where you are faced with an emergency.
You've talked about advice for a young pilot, what about for a young person going into any field? What are the qualities you think are necessary for success?
Chuck Yeager: Knowledge of your job. That's obvious. And also to enjoy it. There is not an easy answer to every question. I mentioned a while ago, there are too many kids that are too narrow in their scope when they start looking at their goals, and they let a lot of marvelous opportunities pass them by. That's the thing that happens a lot.
We've read that you weren't completely thrilled with the depiction of your exploits in the film version of The Right Stuff.
Chuck Yeager: No, the point was, The Right Stuff was not a documentary. It was entertainment. The Air Force came out smelling like a rose, but a lot of the things that were depicted in that movie were pretty fictional, you might say.
Chuck Yeager: The physicals the guys went through and some of the special effects. Going mach one, the blue sky turning red. You don't even look out the window.
That suddenly brought you even more fame, and the attention of a younger generation.
Chuck Yeager: That's really the thing that people don't realize. When I came back from the war I was West Virginia's leading ace. So I got a lot of publicity. Putting on air shows, you get a lot of publicity. The X-1, you get a lot of publicity. After we broke mach one in '47, I'd say never a month went by that some major magazine didn't publish an article on me. Everybody knew my name, who I was, but then I think those AC/Delco commercials put the face with the name, and also my autobiography. What you don't realize is, in the 1960s, when I was running the school, I remember one year I gave 163 talks to different professional groups, Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis, Dining Out, the Fighter Wings and things like that. You get a lot of exposure to a few million people so they know who you are. When I started doing the AC/Delco commercials that, in turn with the talks, tied the face with the name. People then recognized me at airports and everywhere else, but it didn't bother me. I never paid any attention to it, really.
Is there a downside to that kind of thing?
Chuck Yeager: No, not really. I roll with the punches. I don't pay any attention to it. It's fun to have some guy walk up and say, "Are you who I think you are?" And I say, "How do I know who you think I am?" It starts you on a conversation real quick.
What about your kids? Do your think your fame has touched them in some ways that are difficult?
Chuck Yeager: No. They've never let it bother them because they were raised in it. They used to hang around the X-1 on ground runs. I used to let them fire the guns out of the F-86s when we were bore sighting them. They were raised in that environment so they really never paid much attention to it, whether I was famous or not. They never let it make them a dime, or they never let it hurt them.
Any of them serious flyers?
Chuck Yeager: None of them wanted to fly, which was probably a good thing because if you take up your father's profession, if you aren't better than he is, you are a failure. I don't care what profession it is. The thing is, in flying airplanes, you've got to be at the right place at the right time. I was very glad that neither one of the boys wanted to fly. They just did their own thing.
There is a memorable passage in Tom Wolfe's book, where he insists that virtually every pilot in the world today, including civilian pilots and military pilots, imitates your easy-going manner of talking. Do you recognize yourself when you hear these relaxed drawls?
Chuck Yeager: I don't pay any attention to it. It's funny. Some guys do, and some don't. But that makes a good story.
Looking back on your career, is there anything else you wished that you had done?
Chuck Yeager: That's just like asking someone "If you had to do it over again, would you do it the same way?" You have no control over it. No, I don't think there is anything that I've wanted to do that I haven't been able to do because I normally don't want to do anything I can't do.
Has there been any change in the eyesight requirements for military pilots?
Chuck Yeager: You cannot get into pilot training unless you have 20/20 uncorrected vision. After you get your wings, you can have corrected -- meaning wearing glasses.
Was that always the case? You could always wear glasses after you had your wings?
Chuck Yeager: Yes.
Your eyesight has certainly served you well.
Chuck Yeager: I always had 20/10 in each eye. That's twice as good as normal, from eight inches to infinity. I'm sixty-eight on February 13, and I still have that sight. I'm very lucky.
So are we. Thank you sir.
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This page last revised on Dec 10, 2013 01:50 EDT
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