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Yeager's Career Ends on High Note

Aviation legend breaks sound barrier one last time. 'All good things must come to an end.'

October 27, 2002|Wendy Thermos | Times Staff Writer

More than 50 years after becoming the first person to break the sound barrier, Chuck Yeager did it one last time before retiring from his long career of test-piloting military aircraft.

The aviation legend said he has no regrets about walking away from 60-plus years of flying the military's newest and most innovative planes.

"It was interfering with my hunting and fishing," he joked after the era-closing flyover at the annual Edwards Air Force Base air show. "All good things must come to an end."

Yeager's flight was the opening act of Saturday's air show, featuring exhibits of B-1, B-52, F-117A and other aircraft. The crowd was also treated to aerial acts such as a fighter attack demonstration and a team parachute jump.

There might be days when Yeager will miss his role as an Air Force advisor who helps perfect targeting, infrared and other technology, he said. "But I've never been addicted to flying, because to me, it's been my duty. I can walk away and say, 'Man, I had a ball, but I've got something else to do.' "

Still in good health at 79, he said he'll continue fly, but only small, non-military planes. His new mission is to introduce young people to military flying through the General Chuck Yeager Foundation.

"I was probably the last guy who will get to do the kind of flying I did," said the retired Air Force brigadier general. "I came into the military as an 18-year-old kid before World War II, never having been in an airplane, never having even seen one on the ground. It turned into quite an opportunity."

After shooting down at least a dozen German planes in World War II, he was assigned to a flight test facility in Ohio, where his flying skills caught the attention of a top officer. He was selected to pilot the experimental Bell X-1, and in 1947 he broke the near-mythical sound barrier during a flight out of Muroc Army Field, now Edwards Air Force Base. After that he flew "about every kind of plane they had in the military," he said, flying as fast as Mach 3.2.

Since 1975, when he left active duty with the Air Force, he's tested the latest flying equipment as a dollar-a-year consultant for Edwards.

"The other day I said to Maj. Gen. Doug Pearson, the head of the flight test center here, 'That's $27 you owe me,' and the general said back to me, 'Well, maybe we ought to see how much you owe us in jet fuel.' I said, 'Ah, oh well.' "

No one was begrudging Yeager any jet fuel Saturday. During his half-hour farewell flight, about 75,000 air show visitors squinted at leaden skies, hoping to catch a glimpse through the clouds of his F-15 Eagle.

Yeager flew at 30,000 feet in tandem with his old friend, NASA shuttle astronaut Joe Engle, in an identical craft.

Suddenly the pair's contrails came into view and two nearly simultaneous sonic booms thundered as the fliers broke the sound barrier.

"We got up to Mach 1.5," Yeager said. "We didn't want to go too much faster. That would put too much energy into the shock wave, and it'll break windows."

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