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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: 6 / 8)

First Man to Break the Sound Barrier

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  Chuck Yeager

What was Colonel Albert G. Boyd's influence on your early career?

Chuck Yeager Interview Photo
Chuck Yeager: Well, that was after the war. When I came home, I didn't go to Wright Field in 1945 to be a test pilot. I went overseas in November '43, I fought in the war, got shot down, came home, and that one little thing -- that I had gotten shot down in March 1944, evaded capture and went through the Pyrenees into Spain and was interned -- when I returned to the United States, they made me a basic instructor in Texas. Then the war ended in Europe, and they freed all of the prisoners of war. Well, the Air Corps came out with a policy that those airmen, pilots, navigators, bombardiers and gunners who had gotten shot down could select any base in the United States that they wanted. Well that policy covered me, because I had been shot down and evaded, and was known as an "evadee." Evadees and prisoners of war could select any base they wanted. So, I looked at the map, and Wright Field was the closest air base to my hometown in West Virginia, and I picked Wright Field.

When I reported to Wright Field in the summer of 1945, the personnel looked at my records and saw that I was a fighter pilot, but the one thing that caught their eye was that I was a maintenance officer, meaning that I had been trained as a crew chief in aviation maintenance, and then when I served in my fighter squadron in combat, I served as the maintenance officer. You know, running the crew chiefs and the maintenance guys. When I got back, they saw this, and there was a vacancy in a fighter test section there in the flight test division that needed a maintenance officer. And they assigned me there. I had hangars full of every kind of airplane that we were flying. It was interesting to me, because I got to fly every airplane. After they were worked on, then the maintenance officer had to take them up and check all the systems out, and sign them off, and then you turn them over to the test pilots to do their test work in them.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

And that's how I got to Wright Field.

Now, over the next year, or six months, I put on many air shows in jets all over the United States. Colonel Boyd, who was chief of the flight test division, watched a few of those air shows and he was impressed. He noticed also that me being a maintenance officer, I never had any trouble with my airplanes. If something happened to them, I could fix them, and I always brought them home. So, that's when he approached me in December, 1945. He said, "Would you like to go to the test pilot school?" I said, "Well, I only have a high school education and it might be kind of tough for me, the academic requirements." He said, "No, you can make out." And so I went into the test pilot school, and that's what got me started in the test program. And then later, when the X-1 came along, in 1947, he selected me for the test program. And the reason he did was that I understood machinery, and obviously could fly an airplane.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

What do you think he saw in you, in your personality?

Chuck Yeager: I don't know. Personality to him didn't mean a heck of a lot. It's just your ability to perform in an airplane. And that caught his eye. Also he knew that the X-1 was a very dangerous program, and that I could take care of myself.

We'd like to hear about the beginnings of the space program, and your involvement with that. Were you disappointed not to be chosen as one of the Mercury Seven?

Chuck Yeager Interview Photo
Chuck Yeager: Naw. Number one, when the space program started in 1959, I left Edwards in '54, after nine years there as a test pilot, and went to Europe to become a squadron commander in an F-86 squadron, and get back into running a fighter outfit.

When I came home to George Air Force Base, I had an F-100 squadron and I was back in tactical flying. Test work is a very demanding type of flying. You fly a dozen different airplanes every week and you really don't feel comfortable in them, but you know the systems. But also, it's a lot of competition in test work. When you get into tactical flying, back in the fighter squadron, you fly only one airplane, stay combat ready and know your guys. It's a pretty nice way of life. So I came back and I was at George when the space program started in '59. The requirement to get into the space program was to have a degree, preferably engineering, math or one of the sciences. I only had a high school education. I didn't give it a thought. I couldn't care less about it because to me it wasn't flying, it was riding in capsules.

Chuck Yeager Interview Photo
I didn't pay a lot of attention to the whole space program until 1960 when I went through the War College and was promoted to full colonel. And when I had gotten out of the War College, they assigned me back to Edwards Air Force Base and put me in charge of the test pilot school. When I moved into the test pilot school, there were a couple of programs coming within the Air Force: the X-20 Dyna-Soar Program and the MOL Program, Manned Orbital Laboratory. Both of those were space weapons systems. The Air Force was very much involved in space. In fact, it was responsible for space. The NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, was basically aeronautics.

When I took over the school, we started a space course in the test pilot school, changed the name of the school to the Aerospace Research Pilots School and we started training guys for potential astronaut duties. Those astronauts were selected for the Manned Orbital Laboratory and the X-20 Dyna-Soar. The X-20 Dyna-Soar was very similar to the space shuttle, except it was only probably one-third as large. It was strapped on a Titan 3C liquid rocket with two strap-on solid boosters, just like the shuttle, and it would go into orbit, then re-enter and land the same way the shuttle does. Instead of wheels, it had skids to land on, like the X-2 had. We bought a whole space mission simulator for something like six million bucks, and we had it set up in the school. We could have simulations on a whole space mission, including rendezvous and docking in space. We had the astronauts training in the MOL program, and the X-20 program was going along.

Chuck Yeager Interview Photo
And finally, in late '65 or '66, the administration made a decision that space would be for peaceful purposes. They canceled the X-20 and the Manned Orbital Laboratory, and formed NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. And when this happened, the Soviet military moved right into the void in developing space weapons systems. We'd already been through the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. We did away with our whole space mission simulator and went right back to test pilot training at the school. I left and went to Vietnam. I was really, really disappointed with what our government, the White House or the administration, had done, because we had a tremendous capability in the Air Force for space. We would have been 15 years ahead of where we are today with NASA running the space program. And that's the story of my six years at Edwards in astronaut training.

It was amusing. We ran a class through of roughly 11 pilots per year; 38 of the guys that graduated from the school while I was commandant went to NASA as astronauts: Dick Truly, who is now a colonel, was one of my students; Bob Crippen, Frank Borman, Tom Stafford, the whole bunch. They're a good bunch of guys and we had an excellent facility there, but it was wiped out.

Aside from your opinion that we'd be 15 years ahead of where we are now, do you still think that it was a poor decision?

Chuck Yeager: Definitely, a very poor decision. Because we have gone ahead and developed space weapons. We had to because of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The situation developed a need for space weapon systems, the Strategic Defense Initiative -- SDI or "Star Wars" defensive concept. Incidentally, a lot of that technology that was developed to support the SDI program -- or Star Wars -- is the reason that the Patriot missile is so successful today against Scud missiles. That's technology that's associated with space weapons.

Back in the early days of the Mercury program, I gather that the idea of shooting off in a space capsule was not an attractive proposition to you.

Chuck Yeager: Like I said, it wasn't flying, it was just riding in something that you had no control over. Number one, I wasn't eligible. Number two, I could care less. It's interesting. I'm sure that the view was pretty, but that's about the only thing you could say for it.

You've expressed concern over several decades that astronauts, as they have been called, were not given as much of a leadership role as perhaps they should have.

Chuck Yeager: I think one of the big problems that the astronauts are faced with is that they were not exposed to their hardware enough. They were being used, running around the country on PR jobs instead of getting involved in the design and manufacture of the hardware that they were going to be riding in and having more to say about some of the characteristics of it. I think that was obvious during the shuttle accident. The guys really didn't know a damn thing about what the hell was going on around them. They'd leave it up to some bunch of engineers, both civilians and NASA, and that's what bit them.

They should have been involved more with it.

Do you think NASA is moving more in that direction now?

Chuck Yeager: Yes. After the accident and the long period of time, there were a lot of recommendations from the accident board, which I was a member of, that the astronauts get more involved in the hardware so that they understood the systems and had more of a say about whether they flew it or not. Yes, that's taken care of. There have been a lot of changes in NASA. A lot of changes still need to be made, but there have been a lot made.

This would imply that you need different characteristics to become an astronaut. More technical.

Chuck Yeager: No, that's not true. The guys who are selected for astronauts have good technical background, they have capabilities to absorb technology, and they do. But they are crowded a little bit with PR work.

What other problems do you see with NASA as it stands?

Chuck Yeager: Basically, the bureaucracy. It's a civil service organization. It's difficult to get dead wood out of it, it has a tendency not to let loose of operational programs and keep on doing research and development. The shuttle is a good example. We could probably run the shuttle program for about one-tenth of what it is costing today with a good civilian organization that's in it to make a profit.

You've been outspoken about these things for many years, and I imagine that alienates some of the administrators at NASA.

Chuck Yeager: I don't lose any sleep over it.

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