The Right Stuff

The story goes that Chuck Yeager was not impressed with the term “the right stuff.”

Author Tom Wolfe, in his book The Right Stuff, used the phrase to describe the qualities of Yeager and other pilots whose skill and bravery opened the avenue of supersonic flight and space exploration.

Wolfe singled out Yeager in his book, describing him as “the most righteous of all possessors of the right stuff.”

Asked about it by Newsweek in 1985, Yeager said the designation “jes’ don’t mean a rat’s fanny.”

Chuck Yeager

The Lincoln County, West Virginia native spent a lifetime downplaying his long list of achievements.

As a WWII flying ace he shot down five German planes in one day. After he was shot down over France, he escaped by climbing over the snow-covered Pyrenees Mountains into Spain, carrying a wounded fellow soldier with him.

In 1947, he broke the sound barrier for the first time when he piloted the X-1 to over 700 miles an hour, dispelling the fear that a plane would come apart at that speed.  The New York Times said Yeager’s flight ranks alongside the Wright Brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk and Charles Lindberg’s solo flight across the Atlantic.

Yeager test flew hundreds of planes, accumulating over 10,000 hours in the sky, narrowly escaping death in a couple of mishaps. He told Time Magazine in 1949, “I’ll be back all right. In one piece, or a whole lot of pieces.”

Later, he trained prospective astronauts, although he was not interested in becoming one himself.  He wanted control over his craft, and he likened flight in a space capsule to “little more than Spam in a can, throwing the right switches on instructions from the ground.”

Yeager commanded an air wing during the Vietnam War, flying 127 missions.  He was awarded a long list of medals and honors, including the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Yeager credited most of his success to hard work, along with phenomenal vision, excellent eye-hand coordination and cool demeanor under pressure.  He was daring, but not a daredevil, even though he did famously fly his plane under a bridge over the Kanawha River in Charleston once.

“The secret to my success was that somehow I always managed to live to fly another day,” he said.

But even the great General Chuck Yeager, as fast as he flew, could not stay ahead of time. His long and event-filled life ended Monday when he died at age 97.

Yeager was the embodiment of the can-do, no excuses attitude of the Greatest Generation, combined with an Appalachian-hewn grit and self-reliance that kept him alive, while opening the skies to space travel.

He may not have preferred the term, but it is appropriate for the rest of us who marvel at his life to use it.

Chuck Yeager had the right stuff.



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