On October 14, 1947, Chuck Yeager, American test pilot, broke the sound barrier. While flying a Bell X-1 rocket airplane beyond Mach 1, this country boy from the hollows of West Virginia proved that there was no invisible brick wall in the sky to keep mankind from supersonic flight. This achievement was not Yeager’s first claim to fame but only another milestone in his Air Force career.
Though Yeager—an autobiography coauthored by Chuck Yeager and Leo Janos, a former correspondent for Time magazine—reads like a heroic saga, it is based on documented fact. Yeager tells his own story throughout much of the book, 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.
“Starting from Scratch” is the only one of thirty-two chapters focusing on Yeager’s early life. Born into poverty in Myra, West Virginia, near the Mud River, Yeager learned as a child to hunt, fish, and trap. He fondly recollects shooting and cleaning rabbits and squirrels before school and, at the age of six, being a crack shot. His father, an expert mechanic, taught the boy how to disassemble and reconstruct engines, and on hunting trips, he taught the young Yeager survival skills. Equipped with 20/10 vision and a determination to excel at whatever interested him, Yeager performed superbly in combat and test aircraft and later won both the Harmon and Collier trophies.
As narrated in his autobiography, Yeager the combat pilot was a terror. Although he was the most junior officer in the 363rd squadron stationed in England during World War II, Yeager frequently led missions; fellow officers recall him as the best and most reliable leader among them. Not all officers who outranked Yeager, however, wanted to follow his orders: Yeager recalls one incident when he had to force a flyer into formation by opening fire on the officer’s plane. Yeager’s was a brutal warrior’s world: An officer had to be tough, he insists, to save the lives of his men as well as his own life.
This self-made hero was never short on courage or resourcefulness. He excitedly recounts those World War II missions when he shot down German Messerschmitts over occupied Europe. Tracking Axis aircraft and dog-fighting Messerschmitts was a challenge requiring both courage and clear thinking. Aborted missions always left him disappointed because he enjoyed combat. Known as a risk taker, he insists that those he took were calculated, and fellow combatants agree that this was so.
At the age of twenty-two, with the war ending in Europe, Chuck Yeager returned home a national hero and a reluctant former combat pilot. Dog-fighting was his life, and it became a sport he would never outgrow. Yeager repeatedly credits the United States Air Force for his success as a pilot. Referring to himself as an undereducated hillbilly whose potential was recognized and developed by astute commanding officers, he has always been grateful for the opportunities that have advanced his career. Yeager may be a supermacho figure when under fire or when facing the animosities of fellow pilots, but he is always humble about personal accomplishments. He is referred to in the book as a good team player, and his praise of other people certainly corroborates this assessment.
Yeager joined the air force at the age of eighteen shortly after being graduated from high school. A recruiter visiting Hamlin, West Virginia, where Yeager had lived since he was four years old, promoted the air force as an enjoyable career and a way to see the world. Yeager enlisted as an airplane mechanic and applied to the flying sergeant program because it offered an escape from gofer work. His first plane ride made him sick, but he soon enjoyed flying and discovered that he had a natural aptitude for it. Learning to become a pilot was hard work, he admits, but if one wanted to stay alive, he worked hard at it. Yeager has no sympathy for the pilots who died during flight training or for those who made foolish mistakes in combat. To be a pilot, he states frankly, one has to put a lid on grief and use anger as a defense mechanism—a ruthless, defiant attitude that probably saved his life many times. This is only one side of Yeager, however, the side that had to survive the deaths and maimings of many friends.
Yeager, too, was shot down. On his eighth mission, he parachuted from his exploding Mustang into a heavily forested section of Southern France. Wounded with shrapnel, Yeager hid under his parachute while German patrols looked for him. Saved through his own resourcefulness and with the help of the French underground, Yeager eventually escaped over the Pyrenees into Spain, but before then, he hid in shacks and haylofts for a time and lived with the Maquis (the French Resistance fighters) in secret woodland camps. He aided the Maquis as an explosives technician until he and some other downed flyers were spirited away to a trail at the base of the Pyrenees. This mountain trek was arduous, and Yeager’s companion, a pilot named Pat, was shot and wounded by a German patrol. Yeager describes how he had to amputate Pat’s leg with a penknife...