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Aviation Heroes Steal Annual Edwards Show

Aerospace: The public gets a chance to meet daring pilots at the desert air base; 50,000 people attend the event.

October 22, 2000|RICHARD FAUSSET | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE — On Oct. 14, 1947, test pilot Chuck Yeager made this barren patch of desert one of the most hallowed spots in aviation history by breaking the sound barrier in a Bell X-1 research rocket aircraft.

On Saturday, the 77-year-old retired brigadier general brought his flying skills and his aw-shucks West Virginia manner back to Edwards, where he and a fellow aerospace pioneer, Maj. Gen. Joe Engle, broke the sound barrier again in a pair of F-15s to kick off the base's annual Open House and Air Show.

Air Force officials estimate 50,000 people attended the free event, which also featured many younger hotshots flying some of the latest, fastest planes that $267 billion--this year's U.S. military budget--can buy. The one-day event is billed as an opportunity for taxpayers to see how their money is being spent.

But it was Yeager who stole the show.

"I don't think today we appreciate the significance of the first person to fly at the speed of sound," said Garden Grove resident Burt Ashland, who had staked out a spot on the tarmac to watch the two veterans fly again. "Those guys were taking up planes that had never been flown before."

Shortly after the two pilots' inaugural sonic boom, they moved into a hangar for a one-hour talk about the glory days.

Speaking cheerily out of the side of his mouth in the g-droppin' backwoods accent that has become the standard aviator's drawl, Yeager told stories about Edwards' golden era of the 1940s and '50s, when he and a handful of other men pushed the era of flight straight into the era of space.

The test pilots of that time have been portrayed as hard-drinking cowboys happy to dare death, and Yeager made no effort to dispel the myth, recalling that just a few days before the first supersonic flight, he'd broken two ribs during a late-night, drunken race on horseback. After the accident, he said, he was treated by a veterinarian in nearby Rosemond.

"He taped me up and said don't do nothin' strenuous," Yeager recalled, to the audience's delight.

The event also provided aviation buffs with plenty of classic and up-to-the-minute aircraft to ogle.

Laguna Beach resident Raoul Mills, 45, said the awesome display of cutting-edge technology at the air show, combined with the patriotic rush of seeing World War II aces like Yeager close-up, had brought him out here for 10 years.

"This is the most hallowed ground we have in the world for airplanes," said Mills as he waited for an autograph from an F-117A Stealth fighter pilot. "It's a tribute to all the guys who gave their lives in World War II so bozos like us could be free."

With heroes hobnobbing on the ground and screaming across the sky above, children at the event were overcome with excitement--a phenomenon not lost on military recruiters, who gave out boxes of promotional posters and made their pitches for the joys of military life.

Recruiter and Navy Chief Petty Officer Carlos Gonzales, 35, said all the planes made for great public relations, though he conceded not every kid he signed up would be up there in the danger zone.

"A lot of kids come in and say, 'I want to be a pilot, I want to be a SEAL,' " he said. "When we see their [test scores], sometimes we've got to bring them back down to reality a little bit."

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