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Thursday, February 7, 2013

“Yeager: An Autobiography”, by Chuck Yeager and Leo Janos

448 pages, G. K. Hall & Company, ISBN-13: 978-0816140237

Supposedly, Chuck Yeager has amassed a bad rap, but from his autobiography it’s hard to see why. The retired USAF General, who went from shooting down German jets in WWII to flying faster than sound before anybody else thought it possible, tells it like it is. While that may not engender warm feelings, Yeager was obviously a man even his rivals could trust.

The General writes of his humble Virginian origins. Enlisting in the Army as a mechanic, Yeager moved to the pilot's seat through a program intended to put more non-com's into flight-duty. Yeager displays a true pilot's nostalgia of the days when he writes lovingly of the obsolete P-39's he flew from Oroville (half the P-39's built went to the Red AF under lend/lease). Getting to England by 1943, Yeager upgraded to the legendary P-51 – only to get shot down by a German FW-190. Smuggled into neutral Spain and then repatriated, Yeager returned to his unit and then began shooting down German planes, including the Me-262, the first operational jet fighter. Describing the crude though effective jet, Yeager shows how his mechanic's training and senses made the crucial difference: the early jets, built for high-speed, were vulnerable when approaching their runways for landing. Because existing jet engines responded slowly and unpredictably (with one engine spooling up much faster than the other) Luftwaffe pilots who tried to speed away from threats a low speeds often got sucked into mysterious and uncontrollable rolls. It was thus in that vulnerable state that Yeager hunted the vaunted jets.

After the war, and on the strength of his having been shot down, Yeager became a test pilot at the famed high-desert testing ground of Edwards AFB. Though a fighter pilot, it was again Yeager's mechanic's training that made the difference in his selection to pilot the supersonic X-1. Originally intended for flight by civilian pilots with high-price tags, the X-1 was grabbed in 1947 by the newly formed US Air Force as a high-profile project whose success would set that service apart from the Army from which it had just been separated. Successfully taking the X-1 past the sonic barrier, and avoiding numerous would-be disasters, Yeager excelled as a fighter-pilot. Though rivals with test pilots in other services, it was with civilian pilots that Yeager reveals a true enmity, and for the period NASA pilots in particular. Paid for their work, these pilots were not likely to satisfy the minimal requirements of flight test – exploring and establish the outer boundaries of an airplane's performance (nor were they very good pilots, the General maintains, "proven" by the fatal mid-air collision between the B-70 and a NASA flown F-104 in 1965). Even the best civilian fliers are flawed pilots, exceling simply because of their readiness to test their flawed assumptions, as “Wheaties” Welsh did at the controls of an F-100 prototype with a poorly-designed vertical stabilizer.

Leaving flight-test, Yeager eventually rose to command of a squadron of F-100, a plane revolutionary in that – for its pilots – it inaugurated both missiles and mid-air refueling, and was guaranteed to weed out “weak sisters”. Yeager's adventures include stints commanding units in Europe during the early cold-war days, Vietnam and Pakistan during the 1970s, as well as more flight test. He flew with Jacqueline Cochrane, the rich aviatrix who left the scent of perfume in any plane she flew, chatted with Andrei Tupolev and MiG pilots, and flew MiG-15’s flown to the west by defectors. Through it all, he rarely rises to being judgmental, though he lets history do it for him – like the way the public largely ignored him and other test-pilots while lavishing attention on Mercury pilots whose scientific contributions to flight test were not as great. At the same time, his ire towards the political forces that inevitably stretched their tentacles out at flight test becomes too great to ignore - such as when one lackluster African American pilot becomes the Kennedy Administration's designated astronaut.

Yeager is full of insights into the aviation's golden age as well as the Cold War, yet it remains one man's story, and like the Bell X-1, it’s a story you’re strapped into until the end.

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