Ace Performance: Historic Pilot Chuck Yeager Draws Big Audience
April 30, 2012
CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait - Blending history and humor, heroic World War II fighter ace and pioneering jet test pilot Chuck Yeager wowed a capacity crowd here April 12.
With a twinkle in his eye and a Kris Kringle smile, Yeager drew laughter and applause from the audience of nearly 200 soldiers, airmen, sailors and civilians, some of who were standing in the aisles at the Camp Buehring Morale, Welfare and Recreation Theater.
Yeager, now a retired U.S. Air Force major general, regaled the crowd with stories about his life-and-death experiences, which he described in modest everyday terms, like the time he recovered control after he "spun" his aircraft during a "hairy ride."
"That's just part of the life of a test pilot," he said, grinning.
Following a movie about his career highlights, Yeager answered questions and recounted many episodes from his life as a pilot, which began in the Army Air Corps in World War II, according to his website.
A native of West Virginia, Yeager flew the P-51 Mustang in the European theater, completed 60 missions, and shot down 13 German aircraft, including Germany's first jet, the Messerschmitt Me 262.
Yeager recounted how he was shot down, or as he put it, "separated from my aircraft."
"Of course I loved the Mustang because it saved my tail," he said, recounting the incident. "Of course, it blew up on me, too."
Yeager parachuted safely into France and linked up with the French underground. When asked, Yeager said he and other pilots were well-trained to evade capture. That training included some practical exercises in England, during which he and other pilots "stole turnips" from farms, he recalled.
"When we got into combat, we got a refresher course," he joked."There's not a German in the world who can catch a West Virginian in the woods."
With the aid of the underground, Yeager escaped into Spain, at one point carrying an injured airman over the Pyrenees Mountains. Though regulations stated pilots couldn't return to combat over enemy territory they'd escaped from, Yeager appealed to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.
Under strict orders to avoid combat, Yeager flew training missions while Eisenhower decided the matter. But during one such flight, Yeager was ordered to fly cover for a downed B-17 bomber crew near German-occupied Heligoland. When he saw a German plane he suspected was going tostrafe the crew, Yeager shot him down.
A superior officer later reminded him about his orders and shouted, "Can't you do anything right?" Yeager recalled. In the end, Eisenhower decided in Yeager's favor and he returned to combat.
In 1947, Yeager flew the Bell X-1 and became the first person to break the sound barrier. Prior to his historic flight, he broke some of his ribs in a riding accident, Yeager recalled, explaining that he was "pulling three Gs on my horse," and the horse "spun out."
"I had a veterinarian tape me up," he said. "I was hurting."
Though he "probably wasn't the best pilot," his mechanical know-how - gained while he was growing up and while in the military -served him well, Yeager said.
"Not only was I a good pilot, I understood machinery," Yeager said.
Yeager went on to become the first commandant of the U.S. Air Force Research Pilot School, according to his website. Over two dozen of Yeager's students later earned astronaut's wings, flew in the X-15, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs.
"I was not allowed to go into space," Yeager joked. "I only had a high school education. "That's the way the cookie crumbles."
In a ceremony during the show, Yeager promoted Pvt. Sean Stang to private first class. Stang belongs to Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 1st of the 7th Cavalry, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division. Staff Sgt. Hank Slaughter, Stang's platoon sergeant, coordinated the promotion with Morale, Welfare and Recreation.
Stang is from Chandler, Ariz., and Slaughter is from Abilene, Texas. Their unit is currently based at Camp Buehring.
"I had already decided that my platoon's afternoon training would be Gen. Yeager's visit," Slaughter said. "He has been one of my personal heroes since I was a kid."
Stang's promotion date coincided with Yeager's visit, and he thought "it would be really cool" to have Yeager perform the promotion, Slaughter said.
"When I returned with my platoon in the afternoon, I met with the general and his wife backstage and he was more than happy to do it," Slaughter said. "The best part is that it was a total surprise to Pfc. Stang."
Yeager took time to recognize the Air Force personnel in the audience, as well as the Army aviators.
"Just to make you chopper pilots feel good, a rotor came off a Huey I was in, 80 feet off the ground," Yeager said. "And I lived."
Yeager posed for pictures with service members and others before leaving. The audience gave him a standing ovation.
"You guys fly safe," he said heartily as he smiled and waved goodbye.