Yeager

I just finished reading Yeager (Chuck Yeager’s autobiography), having retrieved it out of the local library’s "buck-a-bag" book section along with a few other selections. It’s a pretty decent read, and paints an interesting picture of a man who was in the thick of many of the most exciting aviation developments from the ’40s through the ’60s. He is a blunt, determined individual — heavy on common sense, lighter on formal education. While his interests are not limited to flying aircraft, it is clearly what drives him — his passion for doing so, and the enormous amount of time he spends doing so, define him as well as make him more able to survive the dangers of war and being a test pilot.

It is a drive that I can somewhat relate to — I have been known to get wrapped up in my work and any number of subjects that I find interesting, although probably not nearly to the degree that Yeager does. In a sense, the nomadic life of a career military man can really reinforce those tendencies — moving constantly, and spending most of your time in remote locales with your co-workers and support staff (who also happen to be your buddies) means that you’re talking shop and thinking about "work" all the time. The book periodically drops into anecdotes written by others, including Yeager’s first wife, Glennis, and many of his friends — the ones written by Glennis Yeager vividly illustrate the hardscrabble life of an Air Force family in that era, and her words contrast quite a bit with the passages written by Chuck, a man who is simply thrilled to be moving along from challenge to challenge. "Slick" Goodlin wanted $150,000 to risk his neck breaking the sound barrier — Chuck Yeager only wanted (and got) his normal Air Force pay for doing the same thing, and for many years his family was living a very modest existence in spite of his fame.

The book, apart from the sections relating to the pioneering X-1 supersonic flights, is fairly light on the technical details of flight, but provides a lot of interesting detail about the post-war test flight programs. Particularly interesting is his general contempt for the early fliers of NACA (the predecessor to NASA) — almost without exception he calls them out as lightweights and deficient pilots, reluctant to seek advice from military fliers and especially Yeager, a lightly-educated hillbilly from West Virginia. The accounts of his near-misses are also pretty interesting.

Another aspect of his life (on which considerable space is spent in the book), one which doesn’t match up with my personality, is all of the general hell-raising and debauchery in which he engages. He is pretty much the living embodiment of what you might call a hell-raising rock-and-roll lifestyle (except back in the day) — boozing, chasing skirts, engaging in high-speed pranks and hijinks, and generally bending or breaking every rule that stood in his way. It comes as no surprise to me that, after his wife’s death, he eventually remarried, to a woman 36 years his junior. What is surprising, though, is that apparently he is engaged in a lawsuit against his own children related to the marriage and handling of his financial affairs. Crazy stuff.

Overall, it’s a pretty decent book, and if you’re interested in the subject matter, it’s worth checking out.

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