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).
Mighty kind of the USAF to keep Yeager on TDY and volunteer this serious, accomplished, brave pioneer to be the stunt pilot.
Why did I imagine Yeager lived in comfort after his daring feat?
Because he should have.
Yes, it seems amazing that he should have been treated like that. He does say that he was in the services and therefore did it because it was his duty, but that they didn’t do anything, if only to makes sure he was distracted from his flying, baffles me.
Now, if he’d been an illegal alien, we have rolled out a red carpet or two.
Ha! That’s probably where the whole Area 51 thing got started.
Great story Nigel. I knew about many of Geneal Yeager’s accomplishments bit i was not aware of the movie angel. You can bet the visiting bigshots from DC were well taken care of when they ventured west. Some of the most respectable of the bigshots always insist on living at th standards that the troops live at and insist on eating what the troops eat. What we might call real mean and women.
Have you read Paul Tibbetts book? It gave some great insight into Air Force politics. He was kind enough to autograph copies of his book for my sons when they were still preschoolers .He is remembered for piloting the Enola Gay to Hiroshima but that was only a small sliver of his service. I felt priveledged to be able to thank him for his remarkable service. He was very gracious when I took the boys to meet him even though he was subjected to constant demands on his time.
I hope you will do articles on Reginald Smith and the Spitfire (he thought the name was silly) and Sidney Camm and the Huricane. An article about How Keith Park and Hugh Dowding had to defeat Churchill’s mistakes and the RAF politics before they could defeat the Luftwafe in the battle of Britain.
Churchill was right when he said that it was there finest hour.
Sadly I meet not only college graduates in the United States that don’t know what the Battle of Britain was about but even college graduates from the UK that have little idea what the hell I’m talking about when I ask them about it. I sat between a young history teacher from London and a British WW 2 RAF veteran several years ago on a flight from London to Rome. I excitedly engaged the history teacher on the topic of England’s history. I wanted her polished insights on that crazy hundred years war. She seemed poorly informed. I asked her about the revisionist history concerning the Battle of Britain and she had no idea what I ws talking about. She started lecturing me on the dangers of George Bush and the American war machine. I remained polite but the RAF vet couldn’t take it any longer and when she said “We’re your allies you know!” he lost his temper and forcefullty interupted with “NO. We are not all their allies! I’m his ally, he’s my ally and most of us are allies but you’re just an ignorant twit that should never have been allowed out of whatever insitution you escaped from! You should quit posing as a teacher before you destroy more innocent English children! Go find an empty seat elsewhere you’re making me sick! The shocked teacher quickly found another seat far away from us. The man calmed down when she left and we had a great flight to Rome as he told me fascinating bits of his recollections. We managed to share a dinner in Rome.
Keep writing. There is much teaching to be done.
Boy, that was a plane ride. That veteran sounds like he hadn’t lost much over the years. Sadly, the UK suffers from the same kind of popular (fad?) biases found the world over. It’s particularly sad that someone in the history field should fail to see their own bias and ignorance. Glad you were able to show him the respect he deserved.
I haven’t read Tibbett’s book. I’ll put it on my list. It must have been great to meet him, he’s always seemed like the perfect person for what was a job that could leave a lot of scars. I’m part way through Doolittle’s book at the moment. It’s not quite got the flair that Leo Janos leant to Yeager’s autobiography, but it’s a vivid contrast between what was normal in his youth and today.
I suffer from the same lack of sanity checker, and my sanity needs plenty of checking from time to time. I have to say the line “What we might call real mean and women” did raise a grin though.
And yes, British aero developments are on the cards, but a little way off at the moment.
I hate when I slip in a there for a their. I should never hit the send button without running through the “Pipermatic speel/gramar machine.” I feel as dumb as that school teacher now.
I feel as dumb as that school teacher now.
… apart from the fact that you’ve heard of such patently obscure things as the battle of Britain, the hundred years war, and WW2.
Have a great day.