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Chuck Yeager
Chuck Yeager
Profile of Chuck Yeager Biography of Chuck Yeager Interview with Chuck Yeager Chuck Yeager Photo Gallery

Chuck Yeager Interview (page: 4 / 8)

First Man to Break the Sound Barrier

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  Chuck Yeager

You also flew some amazing missions as a fighter pilot in World War II. Did that success come very quickly?

Chuck Yeager: Well yes. I learned quickly.

We trained in the United States, before we went to England, in P-39s, old Bell Air Cobras. And it was all dog-fighting, air-to-ground gunnery, dive bombing, skip bombing, buzzing, really learning to fly a fighter. We were training to go overseas. Being the maintenance officer, I also had a lot of fun, just running test-offs on the airplanes when they came out of the maintenance. Yes, I was no better than the rest of the fighter pilots. I had very good eyes, as a lot of guys did, and also could dog-fight, just a matter of experience. When we went to England in November of '43, and we got the first P-51s in the Eighth Air Force, as I recall, we picked up a P-51 -- I had never been in one before -- and flew it from this assembly base down to our base in Leiston, and the next day, we are sitting over the middle of Germany fighting in them. You have to learn real quick, and that's the way our pilots were. As I recall, on my seventh mission, I shot down a 109. It was my first airplane that I shot down. We were on a raid over Berlin, the first daylight bombing raid over Berlin. I saw a 109, and I nailed him and, to me, it was a lot easier than I thought it would be, because we were a little bit apprehensive about dog-fighting the Germans in their fighters. They had a lot of experience dog-fighting, and we didn't. So I nailed the guy, but the next day I got shot down.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Let's go back to March 5, 1944. Describe exactly what happened.

Chuck Yeager: I was in a dog-fight with three 190s, and I got hit head-on with a 20 mm cannon, and the prop came off the airplane, part of the wing, the canopy, and it caught on fire. So me and the airplane parted company. That's the way it happens. You bail out, you free fall in your parachute, and then when you get down to within three or four thousand feet of the ground, you pull the ripcord, the parachute pops and you land. That's about the way it happens. I picked up a few wounds. I had a couple slugs in one of my legs. I had some 20 mm fragments in my hands and a couple cuts on my head, but they were minor. So it didn't make much difference. When I landed in my parachute, we were in occupied France, and there were quite a few Germans around. Obviously, you've got to hide or they will pick you up. And, I did. I dug into the woods as deep as I could, and hid. And they never caught me. I laid out there for a day, until things quieted down, and then contacted a French farmer or a woodcutter. I couldn't speak French, but he could see I was an American flyer, because I had my flying gear on, leather jacket and flying suit. And he knew that I needed some kind of help. Fortunately, he went to the right people, instead of turning me in, got me with the resistance forces, the Maquis, who in turn took me under their wing for the next month. I worked my way down through France, finally went through the Pyrenees and into Spain in a neutral country.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Was it a little bit scary to trust this farmer? You couldn't be sure what side he was on.

Chuck Yeager: No. You don't have any choice. You either do or you don't. That's the way to look at it.

You had a 50/50 chance, I guess.

Chuck Yeager: Yes.

What happened when you got to Spain?

Chuck Yeager Interview Photo
Chuck Yeager: Well, I was interned in the town of Lerida, and the American consul came up and talked to us, made sure we were American, then put us up in a hotel, gave us some money and we just bummed around there for about a month. Finally, in May 1944, we were beginning to help Spain who was running out of gasoline because they didn't have any petroleum products, and we began trading gasoline for American pilots that were in Spain. There were something like 2600 airmen interned in Spain who either had made it through the Pyrenees or took their airplanes down and jumped out of them. And the way we got out was that the Spanish took us down to Gibraltar, and turned us over to the British on the island of Gibraltar. The British were flying airplanes from Gibraltar, over the tip of Spain and Portugal up to England, and I bummed a ride up on one of the airplanes, and then went back to my squadron.

According to military rules at that time, you were supposed to have been sent home after having any contact with French resistance.

Chuck Yeager: Well, basically, they didn't want you to compromise the French underground system. And fortunately,

I didn't go straight back to my squadron when I got to Spain. I was held in sort of a secure house, where you couldn't get out, until they interrogated you to make sure you were an American flyer. You know, they wanted your whole story. Where you got shot down, the outfit that you were with, and then they brought a pilot down from my squadron to identify me, and to make sure that I was who I said I was. Then they started publishing orders on me to go back to the United States. That's when I sort of backed off and said, "I don't want to go home, I want to go back to my squadron and fight." And they said, "You can't because the rules prohibit it." Fortunately, the invasion was just coming along, and when the invasion occurred, the resistance forces surfaced, and General Eisenhower, whom I had worked my way all the way up to see, said, "Okay, go back."

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

You really had a near miss there, being shot down. Why did you push so hard to fly again after that?

Chuck Yeager Interview Photo
Chuck Yeager: Well, I knew if I came home as a flight officer, I'd stay a flight officer the rest of my life. That was my rank. I only had eight missions, so I had no reason to come home. The rest of the guys were still with the squadron flying.

The word fear didn't enter your mind?

Chuck Yeager: Well no, that's not part of my career.

How did you come to shoot down five German planes in one day?

Chuck Yeager: When we went over there in November of '43 with the first Mustangs, we flew very long-range missions. The Mustang's range, you could fly for eight hours and stay with a bomber all the way in and out. On this particular mission, I shot down three airplanes and...

I was leading the whole fighter group, which means three squadrons. Our fighter group only had two boxes of bombers to escort. So I stuck the other two squadrons, one on each box of bombers, and took my squadron and ranged about 80 miles out in front of the bomber stream. I spotted 22 enemy 109s in a formation climbing up, out in front of the bombers, 80 to 100 miles. I stayed up-sun where they couldn't see. I spotted them, they were just little specks. I had excellent eyes. I could watch things without them seeing me. I kept up-sun from them with my squadron of sixteen P-51s. Finally, when they leveled out and headed over towards the bombers, I just moved in behind them, down-sun. I got within two hundred yards behind them. They kind of spread out. We still had our drop tanks on because we wanted to keep as much fuel as we could. I shot down the first two without even dropping my tanks. Of course, with the explosions when the airplanes blew up, they all broke and at that point we punched our tanks off and the whole squadron broke up into elements, wing man and his leader to support each other. We got in a big old hairy dogfight, and I shot down another guy. I hammered him, and his wing man cut the power and dropped behind me. This one blew up and that broke into him. Pulled out at about 50 feet before I hit him. And then another guy, I followed him to the deck, got him down low and then it was all over with.

You left the fight following the guy down, then come back and look around. My wing man was still with me and I picked up a couple more guys flying out. You try to orient yourself, kind of fly around, pick up the bombers again and stay with them. That's the way combat is. A lot of shooting, a lot of high Gs, a lot of turns and you gotta watch what you're doing. It's exciting.

Quite a day's work there.

Chuck Yeager: Yes, and remember I only fired 151 rounds of 50 caliber ammunition. That's 31 slugs per airplane. When you are working in real close, 100 feet, 200 feet, you are very effective.

How did you originally come to join the Army Air Corps?

Chuck Yeager: Probably the recruiter was better than the Navy or anyone else and also, I think, one of the guys who went through pilot training about the year that I graduated from high school. He came home. He was a pretty neat guy; he said it was a fun job. But flying, I never associated myself with it.

When I enlisted in the Army, it was just to be a mechanic. There was no intention to be a pilot, or anything like that. When I got in September of 1941, I was trained as a mechanic which was easy [because] I had already had so much experience in mechanical things, like engines and things that Dad exposed us to all the time that I trained and began working on airplanes as a crew chief. I serviced them, overhauled the engines, and things like that. Finally, I recall sometime around the latter part of November 1941, I remember reading a notice on the bulletin board that if you were a high school graduate, 18 years of age and could pass a physical, then you could apply for pilot training under the flying sergeants program. You wouldn't be a cadet, or make lieutenant, or be an officer when you graduated from flight school, you'd be a sergeant pilot. And that looked like a pretty neat deal. I just did it just to be doing something. So I put in my application. I recall taking my physical on December 4, 1941, passing it and then just sweating it out for six months, and finally they called me up for pilot training. But that, you know, it's just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

It sounds like your first experience as a pilot was not all that much fun. Can you describe it?

Chuck Yeager: My first ride in an airplane wasn't any fun. As I recall, it was the spring of '42. I was a crew chief on an AT-11, which was a twin-engine bombardier training airplane. I had overhauled one of the engines and the engineering officer had to take the airplane up and check it out, and he asked me if I wanted to go along. I had never been in an airplane before and I said, "Yeah, I'd like to." So I got in and sat down in the seat and fastened the safety belt. He took off, and he went over to one of the dry lakes down there very near Edwards, between Edwards and Victorville, and started shooting touch and go landings, and it was rough and turbulent. Pretty soon I got sick, and threw up on the airplane. To me, it was a very uncomfortable situation. I didn't particularly care for it, but I had already applied for pilot training. I think that's the only time I went up in an airplane, and that was it, until they called me up for pilot training.

Chuck Yeager Interview Photo
Did you get sick again?

Chuck Yeager: Oh, the first time or two going up. As long as someone else is flying, you get a little woozy. But then, when I started flying the airplane myself, all that went away.

Is that the difference between being a passenger and a pilot?

Chuck Yeager: Yeah, and getting used to it is primarily the thing. You can make anybody sick in an airplane, from motion.

How do you overcome that? Is it psychological?

Chuck Yeager: Basically it is, and physiologically becoming used to it.

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