If you know the name Chuck Yeager, it’s probably because he broke the sound barrier – the invisible, impenetrable wall scientists used to believe existed at the speed of sound – at the age of 24 in 1947. But that’s not the best bit of the story. To understand Yeager, you need the rest of it.
Two nights before the flight, he decided to go horse-riding in the dark in the middle of California’s Mojave Desert. Galloping between the Joshua trees on a moonless night, he failed to see a closed gate and was thrown over it, breaking two ribs. He refused to tell anyone in command in case they grounded him – instead, he got his ribs taped up by a veterinarian – but had a problem: though he could fly his X-1 jet with broken ribs, he couldn’t seal the hatch. So he got a trusted flight engineer to saw the end off a broomstick, fashioned it into a lever, and used that instead. Then, wounded and with a broom handle wedging the lock, he went off and broke the speed of sound for the first time in human history.
Calling Yeager tough is like saying the Titanic had a bit of a scrape. Yeager isn’t tough, he’s indestructible, and represents the kind of epic, heroic American that simply can’t exist anymore in a more cynical age. He became a Second World War flying ace (that is, five kills) aged 21, not in a year or a week of flying but in a single mission. He amputated a shot colleague’s leg with a penknife before carrying him up a snowbound Pyrenean mountain to save his life. He once parachuted from a plane and was hit in the face by his own ejector seat, causing his head and hand to catch fire; upon landing he calmly asked a passer-by for a knife with which he cut off two of his own charred fingertips. When Tom Wolfe wrote The Right Stuff, the definitive account of post-war test pilot bravado and skill, the term was really coined for Yeager himself: “The most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff,” Wolfe said.
And today Discovery Channel Magazine is sitting with Yeager at the test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base, formerly Muroc – the place where he broke the barrier 65 years ago. It’s clear that he hasn’t lost any of his directness over the years. “You got an English accent,” he says to me as we drive around the base. “I gotta tell you, I hated the English even more than I hated the Germans in World War Two. The meanest people I have ever seen, and we were supposed to be saving your god damn asses.”
And on that note, we begin.
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