Piloting the X-1 beyond the speed of sound was an accomplishment of skill, bravery and dedication. And when Chuck Yeager pushed passed Mach 1 the newly formed Air Force pushed just as hard to pick up every opportunity for publicity it could.
Thing is, the Air Force wasn’t the one who broke the sound barrier, it was Yeager. So Yeager became the USAF’s supersonic front man: shaking hands, attending dinners, and giving speeches. He would work a full day then hop on an aircraft to cross the country just to shake hands with one group or another. They were well meaning, but they exacted a toll on someone who was already putting 100% into a job couldn’t exactly be called plain sailing (pun intended).
But while the USAF and the public treated him as famous, he received none of the usual trappings of fame. He didn’t complain, but the Air Force even kept him as TDY, which meant he didn’t even qualify for base housing. With the sparse housing in the desert around Muroc Field he and his family “lived no better than a damned sheepherder-maybe worse.”
While Yeager was touring the country he would sometimes attend functions with John Glenn, who was being put through the same publicity wringer by NASA after his orbital flight. Glenn was overwhelmed with letters asking for his autograph. NASA suggested he used a mechanical signing machine to reproduce his signature. Chuck was equally inundated, but insisted that they shouldn’t use a machine, to stay honest, no matter how much effort it took.
Fame did take Chuck to the movies, twice in fact. The first time was as a guest to watch the British movie Breaking the Sound Barrier, fictionalizing the life of Geoffrey DeHavilland.
DeHavilland had been killed attempting to break the barrier in the Swallow, but the actor in the movie flew a Spitfire (which in reality couldn’t get above 0.75 Mach). At the point the actor reached Mach 1 in a dive, the film producers wanted him to do something dramatic, so they decided he should push forward on the stick, the reverse of the normal.
The movie was pretty realistic, and by the time the first showing was over it had given birth to the idea that to go through the sound barrier you had to reverse the operation of the joystick.
Yeager spent a long time correcting his audiences that it was him, an American, that had broken the sound barrier, not a Brit, and not by reversing his inputs on the joystick.
I’ve never seen Breaking the Sound Barrier, but it must have been pretty good, because when newly appointed Secretary of the Air Force Thomas Finletter met Chuck, he actually asked him that very question. In his autobiography Chuck reported he responded politely, but I suspect he had to restrain himself.
Chuck’s second movie experience was courtesy of the XF-92A and stared John Wayne and Janet Leigh in the US made Jet Pilot.
When the making of the film was announced the USAF figured they would get even more publicity, and volunteered Yeager for the flying stunts. The XF-92A was used as a MiG, but Chuck also flew an F-86. In one shot Chuck had to dive, inverted, into overcast skies and pull out close to the ground while being chased by a second aircraft. He overdid the dive and gained too much speed. The pilot chasing him called for him to eject, but, descending too fast to survive ejection, Chuck stayed with the aircraft and pulled hard on the stick. He tore chunks off the control surfaces, but managed to pull out “just above the fence posts.” Relieved, he tried to use his radio, but found it unable to transmit.
The pilot in the chase plane had already pulled away and, not seeing Chuck’s recovery, was busy on the radio, reporting the incident. Chuck struggled back to base, listening to frantic reports that Yeager had bought it.
Like much of his early career, his only reward from Jet Pilot was personal, in this case a quip. When asked about his involvement he would smile and answer it was no big deal, “Just one hot love scene with Janet Leigh.”
It can’t have made up for his living conditions, but it would have made me grin!
(Images courtesy of Wikipedia. Brief quotes from the excellent Yeager: An Autobiography by General Chuck Yeager and Leo Janos).