In the case of 88-year-old retired Gen. Chuck Yeager, best known for being the first pilot to fly faster than the speed of sound, the secret has been not worrying about things that are out of his control.
Yeager visited Sage Ridge School in south Reno on Thursday to share the adventures of his life with students and parents.
“He has a really great sense of humor,” said Ethan Olesinski, a seventh grade student.
“His presentation was absolutely fantastic,” seventh-grader Wyatt Keysor said. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world and neither would have my parents.”
During his visit, Yeager told Sage Ridge families of his accomplishments, mishaps and adventures.
“I’ve bailed out (of an airplane) three times, been shot at and had airplanes fall apart around me,” Yeager said. “It’s been an exciting ride.”
Fear was never an issue for Yeager, who flew in World War II and Vietnam, conducted test flights on every aircraft in the U.S. Air Force inventory and survived several planes spinning out of control while in the air.
“When you can’t do anything about something, forget it,” Yeager said Thursday when asked if he was ever scared.
Yeager, who was raised in Hamlin, W.Va., enlisted in the Army Air Corps upon graduating from high school in 1941. He served as crew chief on an AT-11 until July 1942, when he was selected for pilot training under the flying sergeant program.
He earned his pilot’s wings in 1943 and headed for Europe to fight in World War II later that year as part of the 357th Fighter Group. Yeager’s group was assigned to the Eighth Air Force and given P-51 Mustangs, which were known as the best all-around fighter planes in the war.
“There were 1,200 Mustangs over Germany at any one time,” Yeager said, adding the average German pilot died on his third mission.
During Yeager’s eighth combat mission in March 1944, he was shot down, evaded capture and rejoined his unit in England.
“He convinced Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to let him return to battle,” according to a video about Yeager shown to the Sage Ridge students.
Upon returning to the U.S., Yeager spent a short time as a flight instructor in Texas, and then was assigned to the position of assistant flight maintenance officer in the fighter section of the flight test division at Wright Field, Ohio. His job was to inspect all aircraft going in and out of maintenance, so he had the opportunity to fly nearly every fighter plane.
He demonstrated exceptional skill as a pilot and was selected to fly accelerated service trials on a jet fighter, the P-80A Shooting Star. In 1947, Col. Albert Boyd, chief of the flight test division, chose Yeager to pilot the rocket-powered Bell X-1 in an attempt to break the sound barrier.
When the sound barrier tests began, there were a lot of unknowns about how well the plane would hold up at such a high rate of speed and whether the pilot would survive, but Yeager wasn’t worried.
“The one advantage I had in doing research flying was that I had been very disciplined in combat,” Yeager said. “You learn to wipe out of your mind the things you can’t control … I could concentrate on what I was doing without worrying about the outcome.”
The ability to keep cool under pressure not only saved Yeager’s life on more than one occasion, but allowed him to land safely on the ground to help engineers develop new flight technology.
During his eighth X-1 test flight, as the plane approached the sound barrier — known as Mach 1 — the plane lost pitch control and a shock wave had formed along the hingeline of the plane’s elevator. Yeager nearly broke the speed of sound that day, but decided not to proceed under the conditions.
The X-1 was equipped with a moving horizontal tail, and Capt. Jack Ridley suggested using the movable tail to stabilize the plane. This had never been done at the speed Yeager was attempting, but he was willing to give it a try.
On Oct. 14, 1947, Yeager tested the movable tail and found it to be effective in stabilizing the aircraft. At an altitude of 43,000 feet, Yeager crossed the invisible sound barrier when he reached a top speed of Mach 1.06, or 700 mph.
“I didn’t realize what it meant to the Air Force,” Yeager said, adding he was just performing the duties that were asked of him.
During the remainder of Yeager’s 35 years of active duty military service, he flew test missions, prepared pilots for space flight and even returned to combat during Vietnam. Following his retirement in 1975, he was asked to continue serving as a consultant for $1 per year.
Yeager accepted that invitation and has spent the rest of his years continuing that service.
Now at almost 90 years of age, Yeager is still flying.
“There are 41 streets at Edwards Air Force Base named after dead pilots,” Yeager said. “There is one named after a living person, and that’s me. I intend to keep it that way.”