ONE OF THE BEST stories I know about flying is told by Saul Bellow. Years ago in Chicago he was at the movies with his wife. They had just seen Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy in Test Pilot and as they left the theater she turned to him, clinging to his arm, and said, "Why don't we have friends like that?"
I don't think I ever met Chuck Yeager although in the mid '50s he was commanding a fighter squadron in Germany only an airfield away and we landed there from time to time. I did meet Pete Everest, another famous test pilot, and remember him saying that his ambition was to be the first man on the moon -- this was even before Sputnik. But we had laconic squadron commanders of our own as well as pilots who were or later became renowned: Hoot Gibson, Deke Slayton, White who burned up in the first Apollo, Aldrin who was in the first moon landing, Bill Creech.
Everyone knew who Chuck Yeager was but there was a feeling that he was special, a celebrity who had been given a squadron as a kind of reward and in any case he hung around with figures like Jackie Cochran, went to banquets, delivered speeches -- all of these activities making his realness suspect. The fact that he had been an ace in the Second World War was something far back. That had been a decade before. It was the first jet aces, the Korean aces, who were the golden boys: Jabara, McConnell, Boots Blesse.
Fighter pilots are very much as Yeager reveals himself in this autobiography -- competitive, confident, uncomplex. There's a good deal of nihiism in them. They are sentimental about some things, airplanes, hairbreadth escapes, items of clothing, but not about others. Yeager is this way. You are listening to a good old boy tell about all the fun he's had -- some of it rather fire blackened -- and all the ol' Jacks, ol' Delberts, ol' you name the airplane he remembers fondly. Many of these are dead or otherwise gone.
Veteran fighter pilots breathe an invulnerability and in Yeager's case it was abundantly proven. If you stay around long enough you'll see pilots killed, some in fantastic ways. Some of them superb pilots. Yeager got through. He bailed out three times from burning or otherwise doomed planes. The second of these was over Occupied France when he was shot down during the war and his account of his experiences with the Maquis and eventual escape on foot into Spain is as gripping as anything in the book. That he did all this, finally got back to his group in England and refused to be sent home, insisting that he be allowed to finish his combat tour, gives you an idea of his aggressiveness and determination. He was sent all the way up to Supreme Headquarters and interviewed by Eisenhower himself before he finally got his wish. He paid back the favor by eventually downing a total of 12 enemy airplanes, five of them on a single extraordinary mission.
You could shake the tree in those days and great flyers would tumble around your feet: Bong, Joe Foss, McGuire, Blakeslee, Mahurin, on and on. Yeager was far down on the list but he came from a classic mold -- country boy, hunter, not much education but good native sense. From his father, a gas field worker who refused to shake hands with Harry Truman, a damn Democrat, when Yeager was being presented with the Collier Trophy (for breaking the sound barrier), he inherited stubbornness and mechanical ability. He also inherited the true gift of aces, exceptional eyes. Years later he claimed he could see the bullets as they went throug the fabric in aerial gunnery.
He got into test flying early, largely by accident, and soon attracted the attention of his chief, Col. Albert Boyd, who selected him over higher ranking and more experienced men to fly the X-1. Yeager turned out to be all that was hoped for, a natural, skilled and marvelously cool. The rest is well known, the now glamorous decade when Muroc was a sunbaked and remote world akin to North Africa with a single legendary bar -- you've seen the movie -- and hardbitten flyers who seldom wore anything more military than a flying suit, a great shimmering flatland where the speed of sound, Mach 1, was finally exceeded a few years after the war. It was an historic achievement that took considerable effort and courage, Yeager's and the engineers', and was acclaimed as a major milestone and compared to the flight of the Wright brothers -- although in retrospect it seems to be diminishing in importance, especially since there relly was no sound barrier but only the unknown or as Yeager and his close colleague, Jack Ridley, liked to call it, the Ughknown. Yeager became the premier military test pilot and one way or another managed to defend the title for years. Crowned early with laurel -- he was only 24 when he flew the X-1 -- he would have known the melancholy of seeing it all fade despite the trophies and awards were it not for The Right Stuff, irresistibly written and more brilliant than life. The flying sequences in the movie are the best ever made.
The most interesting part of Yeager's book, almost two thirds of it, is devoted to the early and test pilot portions of his career. He cannot tell the story as well as Tom Wolfe but it is given in more detail and he doesn't hesitate to settle scores with some well aimed shots at people who failed to earn his respect including Scott Crossfield, Neil Armstrong, and the forever footnote-sized Slick Goodlin, the unfortunate civilian pilot who passed up the chance to break Mach 1 because of money. Yeager never gave a thought to money and in a nice enough ending managed to wind up wtih some long after. He loved flying. He liked the Air Force. He wound up loving them both. Shakespeare would have recognized his soldierly type, solid, outspoken, brave, and perhaps endowed him with more enduring lines although he does pretty well as the tough but amiable old-timer who endorses spark plugs on TV.
He was part of the real and now in some ways is part of the unreal, the world of inflated images, personalities, sports figures, aging movie stars. They have photographed him, paid him for his memories, and stolen his soul. But he has one thing for good now, that great American thing, fame. For someone who was mistaken for a dumb, down-home squirrel shooter and married the best looking gal in Oroville, California, and went on from there, it's not too bad.