Photographing Chuck Yeager: A Remembrance
The world famous aviator, General Chuck Yeager, died earlier this month he was 97. Yeager was born in Hamlin, West Virginia, enlisted after high school, and flew 64 combat missions as a fighter pilot against Germany during world during world war two. After that, he trained as a test pilot here in Dayton and in 1947 became the first man to break the sound barrier. WYSO’s aviation commentator Dan Patterson, met Yeager several times and has this remembrance.
I first met Chuck Yeager at a WWII reunion airshow near Louisville. There were a lot of veteran aviators there, pilots in their 70s who had flown legendary war birds, were pleased to be recognized for their service.
However, the spotlight of REAL celebrity seemed to be shining on just one of them.
The book and the film named The Right Stuff had come out a few years before and Yeager was riding a wave. You could spot him anywhere in the crowds – because there were always fans trailing him. But Yeager had developed a reputation for being gruff and short tempered, so he always had a dedicated entourage in orbit around him to insulate him from the crowds.
But a funny thing would happen when the other veteran pilots interacted with Yeager. It seemed to me they were determined not to take Yeager’s celebrity very seriously. These guys had also faced the enemy - some had been shot down - and all of them had squadron mates who had not returned from a mission. There were a lot of sideways jokes directed at Chuck Yeager and he often gave it right back. The inside banter among the warriors was often pretty funny but at times had a sharp edge.
I saw Yeager again, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, at the world famous annual gathering of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA). Celebrating warbirds is a big part of Oshkosh, and Yeager was often there, at least until the last few years.
In the 1990s, the EAA started the Young Eagles Project. The idea was simple, EAA pilots would donate their time and the fuel costs to give young kids their first airplane ride. This was a national effort and the goal was to provide a million kids that experience by the end of 2003, the centennial of the Wright Brothers' first flights. One of those pilots was Chuck Yeager.
The Young Eagles kids got a real pilot experience. They were introduced to the dynamics of flight, they got an explanation of the equilibrium of flight, defined by the Wrights. They learned about Lift, Drag, Thrust and Gravity. They also got to participate in the time honored ritual called “walk around “ inspection of the aircraft . . . putting their hands on the control surfaces and moving them through their arcs assuring that they were free and clear in movement. They learned to check the oil and the fuel for contaminants. Only then could they climb in, fasten the safety belts and go fly - - - and if they were lucky they flew with Yeager. In early 2004 he flew the One Millionth Young Eagle.
I was working on a book series back then called the Aviation Century – and naturally, Yeager was included as a test pilot. We decided to photograph him at Maxwell Air Force Base where he would be attending the annual Gathering of Eagles events, where great aviators were invited every year.
We knew he had soft spot for kids, so we arranged to photograph him with a group of kids on the wing of a yellow T-6 Texan, a plane Yeager had flown. The T-6 taxied into place and we all waited for the great man to arrive.
His entourage announced his arrival and he appeared - in a coat and tie, dressed for a formal dinner that night. I was given less than 15 minutes to get the shot.
As Yeager walked up I began to explain what we were doing. He looked at me with some disdain and snapped “just hurry it up.” I walked behind the camera asked the group to tighten up, get closer . . . with Chuck Yeager in the center. I looked it over and walked forward with my light meter to just be sure I had the exposure right. After all, this was truly a one shot deal. As I went back to the camera Yeager snarled, “Now let’s don’t get all creative here, just take the damn picture." Which is what I did . . . 10 exposures and that was it.
Another aviation legend on film. I thanked everyone and thanked Chuck Yeager specifically. He pushed past and said quietly, “well at least you didn’t screw around” and walked away.
His legend just got larger and now Chuck Yeager has made his last takeoff.
Blue Skies and Tailwinds, General Yeager!