Here we are now, in a world without Chuck Yeager

2560px-Chuck_Yeager

There’s a blog post I’ve been meaning to write in recent days expressing my great disappointment with the Disney+ TV series, “The Right Stuff.” It is a strange, flat, uninviting and even depressing retelling of the tale of the seven Mercury astronauts. That’s it, just the astronauts. Nothing about the context in which they came into being. Nothing about the culture of test pilots that produced them, and set the standard they wanted to live up to.

No Chuck Yeager. How can you name a series after that concept Tom Wolfe introduced into our popular lexicon, and leave Chuck Yeager out of it?

Chuck was the embodiment of the Right Stuff, and the whole world — the world of pilots, at least, knew it. Early in Wolfe’s book, he wrote about the way airline pilots act and talk — their matter-of-factness, their lollygaggin’ lack of concern about potential problems in flight (“I believe it’s that little ol’ red light that iddn’ workin’ right…”), their folksy accents — and traced it all to back to the influence that one man had upon the world of aviation, that man being Yeager. They all wanted to fly like him, they all wanted to be him, and failing that, they would at least sound like him.

Because he not only had the right stuff, he was the right stuff.

What, exactly, was this “ineffable quality” of which Wolfe wrote?

… well, it obviously involved bravery. But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life. . .any fool could do that. . . . No, the idea. . .seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment–and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day. . . . There was a seemingly infinite series of tests. . .a dizzy progression of steps and ledges. . .a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even–ultimately, God willing, one day–that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men’s eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself….

And at the top of the top of that ol’ pyramid was Yeager.

It’s not just about breaking the sound barrier. Yeager was just the ultimate pilot’s pilot. Yes, he was a natural stick-and-rudder man, and the wonderful movie version of Wolfe’s book back in the ’80s captured that and played it for all it was worth, but he also thoroughly understood the machine he flew on a fundamental level. He wasn’t an engineer — he had his friend Jack Ridley, and others, for that — but he was a guy whose reports the engineers liked to read, because he knew what they needed to be told.

And yes, he was a hero, long before breaking that demon that lived in the thin air. A fighter pilot was considered an ace when he’d shot down five enemy planes. Yeager did that in one day. He shot down Me-109s and Focke-Wulf 190s, and even one of those jets the Nazis built. He had sort of a superpower: With his unaided eyes, he could see the enemy coming 50 miles away. But mainly, he outflew and outfought them. Not that he was invulnerable. He got shot down behind German lines, but escaped back to England. That meant he had to go home — he knew things that could endanger the underground if he were shot down again and captured. But he bucked it all the way up to Ike, and Ike let him stay and keep fighting.

He hadn’t been to college, and wasn’t an officer when he started flying in the war. But he broke that barrier, too — he was a captain when he flew the X-1 into history, and his repeatedly demonstrated skill, courage and dedication took him all the way to the rank of brigadier general.

And now he’s gone, and we won’t see his like. As bad as it is to have a TV show called “The Right Stuff” without Yeager in it, now we all have to live in a world that doesn’t have him. Man is mortal, and bound to end up this way. But Yeager packed an awful lot of awesome stuff into the 97 years before that….

25 thoughts on “Here we are now, in a world without Chuck Yeager

  1. Bob Amundson

    One of my heroes. The movie shows Yeager recovering from a flat spin caused by inertial coupling, long enough to eject. He was flying outside the envelope (as he often did) and no one knew what inertial coupling was, and it is obvious an engineer named the aerodynamic phenomena. Great man, a true pioneer in modern aviation.

    Reply
      1. Bob Amundson

        That’s the scene; I think it may be somewhat inaccurate, or the same problem happened twice. The story I’ve heard ended with recovery from the flat spin and landing the aircraft. Imagine a leaf falling – that is similar to an inertial coupling flat spin. To recover takes an incredible amount of skill AND luck. Avoid at all costs …

        Reply
        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          That happened 10 years earlier. He did pull it out of the spin that time, and managed to land.

          That was in the movie, too.

          The one I posted was on 10 December 1963. That’s the one that the movie misrepresented for dramatic effect. Jack Ridley is in the vehicle headed out across the flats to the crash site, and seeing an indistinct figure headed toward them from a distance, the guy driving the vehicle asks, “Is that a man?”

          And Levon Helm, as Ridley, says, “You damn RIGHT it is!”

          Trouble is, Ridley had been killed in a crash a few years before that.

          As narrator, Levon Helm made everything about that movie work…

          Reply
          1. Bob Amundson

            Thanks Brad. Reading your blog led to wife Joan and I wanting to re-watch “The Right Stuff, ” but it is not available on Hulu or Netflix. We listened to music for a while; I tried to choose songs unfamiliar to her that represent my story or my love for her. That included The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Love, Reign o’er Me” and The Cure’s “Love Song.”

            YouTube then suggested REM’s “Man on the Moon” and we decided to try to watch the movie. Joan is not a big Jim Carrey fan (neither am I), so she had never watched the movie; I love the movie as I was always a fan of Andy Kaufman (Saturday Night Live’s first season in my senior year in college, 1975). The movie is not available, but Netflix suggested “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond.” The documentary (2017) alternates between contemporary interviews with Carrey and firsthand footage of the making of Man on the Moon. The evening ended with REM’s “The Great Beyond” as does the movie and the documentary. If you like Tony Clifton, Kaufman, Carrey, Milos Forman (directed Man in the Moon) or REM, you may enjoy the documentary as much as we did.

            What did you think of “Hillbilly Elegy?”

            Reply
    1. Barry

      A secretary at my dad’s former office died this week of COVID. She was healthy and doing great, until….

      He’s now lost 3 friends to COVID in 2 months. He has another 2 friends that are very sick with it.

      Yesterday I was fortunate to be able to help the family of my 52 year old friend/coworker who died of COVID last month. They are preparing for Christmas and want to take a family trip and i was glad my family was able to help.

      Reply
  2. Ken

    From: Chuck Yeager: An Autobiography (1986):

    ” That fall [1944] our fighter group received orders from the Eighth Air Force to stage a maximum effort. Our seventy-five Mustangs were assigned an area of fifty miles by fifty miles inside Germany and ordered to strafe anything that moved. The object was to demoralize the German population. Nobody asked our opinion about whether we were actually demoralizing the survivors or maybe enraging them to stage their own maximum effort in behalf of the Nazi war effort. We weren’t asked how we felt zapping people. It was a miserable, dirty mission, but we all took off on time and did it. If it occurred to anyone to refuse to participate (nobody refused, as I recall) that person would have probably been court-martialed. I remember sitting next to Bochkay at the briefing and whispering to him ‘If we’re gonna do things like this, we sure as hell better make sure we’re on the winning side.’ That’s still my view.”

    Reply
    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’m fine. Just now finished working for today, at 9:27 p.m.

      The funny thing is, I’ve posted a number of things about that on Twitter. I tend to read that while eating, and go ahead and comment. Sometimes I forget, after I say something, that I didn’t say it here…

      Samples of what I said, or retweeted from others:

      I also had a good conversation about it with EJ Dionne via personal Twitter messages. We were talking about his excellent column pushing Merrick Garland for attorney general, and he mentioned, “btw I am really worked up about that Texas lawsuit and the embrace of it by so many Republicans. At least the secessionists acknowledged that Lincoln won!”

      I agreed, and we discussed it further.

      So I guess I feel like I’ve sort of talked about it — just not here. Sorry.

      Thank God it ended well.

      Anyway, I hope to find time to post on the blog more next week…

      Reply
      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I had hoped to find time today to elaborate on that point Jennifer Rubin was making — that in a just and rational world, the Republicans who supported this antiAmerican travesty would never serve in public office again. As she said,

        In 2022 or 2024 or beyond, voters need only ask one question: Is the candidate on one of these “seditious” lists? If so, vote for the other one…

        Amen.

        Of course, almost half of voters (and more in SC) won’t take that advice, given what we’ve seen. And that leads to the conversation I was having with EJ. I sort of realized something recently about Trumpism — about how and why close to half of voters in this country have lost their freaking minds in the last four years — and have been meaning to post about it. Because that is the bigger problem. At earlier times in our history, what Alan and the rest just did would make them personae non gratae, permanently. Not so anymore, and they know it, which is why that did it.

        But that will be a fairly involved post, and I haven’t found the time.

        Maybe next week….

        Reply
      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        I only got around to writing this Chuck Yeager post because Bryan bugged me about it, very late that day. So I banged something out before stopping for the day, sort of as I’m now doing with these comments.

        I’ve got to start finding more time to write…

        Reply
      3. Brad Warthen Post author

        Oh, and be sure to read the piece that Cindi passed on. It’s an old State newspaper joke that whatever she wrote is just what I would say. At least, I ASSUME she wrote it. It ends:

        Mr. Wilson is using the power of his office to try to overturn the results of a valid election and undermine public confidence in our republic, and he is dragging our state into the fray. That’s a stain on his reputation that Mr. Wilson will have to live with for the rest of his career — and a tremendous hurdle to overcome if he seeks reelection in two years.

        Since that appeared as an editorial rather than a column, I hope the P&C will have the guts to back it up the next time he faces election…

        Reply
        1. Barry

          Did you see that the Texas GOP put out a statement suggesting secession?

          The Arizona GOP asked,supporters if they were willing to die to overturn the election” then they tweeted “ This is what we do, who we are. Live for nothing, or die for something.”

          That’s an open invitation to someone to use violence and it was coming from the state GOP.

          That’s the GOP today.

          Some of trump’s favorite supporter’s (people he regularly retweets) on Twitter were saying Friday night that the military should be called out.

          Last night on Parler, vocal trump supporters (again, some that trump has retweeted in the past) were advocating taking up arms against fellow Americans.

          One incoming Republican congressman tweeted yesterday that “Joe Biden could kiss my a$$”

          It’s a cult.

          Reply
          1. Barry

            BTW

            As I told one person yesterday that suggested taking up arms against fellow Americans ..

            “I’m very, very well prepared so make a wise decision”

            Reply
          2. James Edward Cross

            Or how about Michael Flynn (a former military man, no less) urging Trump to suspend the Constitution, declare martial law, and do a re-vote.

            Reply
            1. Barry

              Multiple stabbings last night in DC.

              Proud Boy group was out looting and damaging private property, including one of the oldest African American churches in DC.

              Did you see the freak show that was the Trump rally yesterday?

              Alex Jones was running around, several speakers claimed that the military would have to be called out to help trump stay in office.

              The list of crazies was too long….

              Reply

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