Though YEAGER reads like a heroic saga, it is based on documented fact. Yeager tells his own story throughout, but he occasionally stops to let others comment as well; Yeager’s wife, Glennis, his friend Bud Anderson, former commanders, and previous rivals relate their own stories about him. The result is a fresh, lively narrative filled with anecdotes in which Yeager’s legendary feats are episodically recollected.
The inspiration for the film THE RIGHT STUFF, Yeager piloted many experimental planes, among them the Bell X-1, in which he was the first to break the sound barrier. In the 1950’s, Yeager tested everything from supersonic interceptors to prototype bombers, challenging what the pilots called the “Ughknown.” He even tested a captured Russian MIG-15 during the Korean War and evaluated jets for the French.
His career spanned a golden period of postwar aviation, when jets replaced propeller planes and when the era of space travel was dawning. He was the first pilot to glimpse the blackness of space, when in another Bell rocket-powered craft, he exceeded Mach 2, twice the speed of sound.
In the late 1950’s, he headed the newly created Aerospace Research Pilots School at Edwards Air Force Base. There, he helped to train the first generation of military aerospace test pilots and developed the first space simulator. The promise of the Space Age excited Yeager, particularly when he envisioned orbiting space laboratories and transportable shuttles. Although he was instrumental in laying the foundation for the nation’s new commitment to space exploration, his lack of a college education prevented him from becoming an astronaut. Matter-of-factly, he states that he did not see where the risks involved were as great as some research flying done at Edwards over the years.
This truly is an autobiography which presents a life’s career in all its richness--a life experience in full dimension.
While most readers are drawn to read Yeager because of a single incident in his life—the breaking of the sound barrier—the greatest strength of the biography is the exciting and unique military career of Chuck Yeager, which began during World War II and continued through the Vietnam War.
Unlike many of the pilots of World War II, Yeager had never even seen a plane “close up” until he was fifteen, when one “bellied into a cornfield on the Mud River” near his home in Hamlin, West Virginia. He joined the Army Air Corps in the summer of 1941 and was trained as an airplane mechanic. Although he became violently ill during his first plane ride, he applied for the “Flying Sergeant” program. He persevered through the airsickness phase, learned the mechanics of flying, excelled in seeing and then shooting air and ground targets, and was recommended to become a fighter pilot. More training ensued, interrupted by a temporary assignment as a test pilot. Yeager was shot down over occupied France after only eight missions.
Yeager’s account of his escape from occupied France is as exciting as any fiction, but the present tense of this account and its contrast with the more logical past-tense narratives of the “other voices” weaken the impact of the writing. Whether the present tense was a concession to Yeager’s natural speech patterns or an attempt to add a sense of immediacy to the retelling of certain events, readers may...
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The young adult who reads Yeager learns about a half century that might seem to be “ancient history,” but the events portrayed will continue to have been first-person experiences for many people living several decades past the year 2000. Young readers who are specifically interested in Chuck Yeager or who have a general interest in aviation would enjoy and benefit from reading the entire book. Those who have a limited interest in aviation or who are only interested in World War II, the Korean conflict, Vietnam, or Pakistan might be better served by reading specific selections.
Yeager’s reckless pursuit of “fun” in his youth almost destroyed his career more than once. Breaking his ribs the night before he broke the sound barrier was minor compared to some other personally irresponsible incidents that he relates, and although he makes some attempt to justify orders that he and other U.S. pilots were given to kill “innocent civilians” during World War II, he also labels the results as an “atrocity.” Yeager’s failure to accept responsibility for his own actions, private and public, makes him a questionable role model.
Of the three women portrayed in depth—Glennis Yeager, Jacqueline Cochran, and Pancho Barnes—and the countless prostitutes and the nameless “girls to chase,” Glennis is the only one who might be considered an acceptable role model for young women. In fact, many readers may find the attitude toward women to be offensive.
Nevertheless, Yeager is an interesting and entertaining book for adults. Whether young adults will also benefit from reading the biography will depend on their level of maturity.