General %$#!&@ Yeager
Chuck Yeager had all the luck in the world. During one dogfight over Germany in 1944, he shot down five enemy fighters in a matter of minutes, without getting touched. His skill as a fighter pilot remains legendary and he was always a hero.
Later, he went on to become America's premier test pilot, winning the admiration of generations of airmen from around the world.
I find that most heroes have day jobs and Chuck Yeager's was as a consultant for NASA. Not being a hero, my day job was to loaf around in the back of an Admiral's jet, making sure pilots with 30 years experience knew where the exits were located.
We flew all day long. Stop here, transfer passengers; land there, load some more, etc., etc., all across the country. Then we repeated the process two or three more times before we dropped down onto Runway Two-Niner at NAS North Island.
Weather was rarely a factor. Our tax-fattened flying pig had all the electronics you could ask for, so we usually flew right through or over any storms in our path.
On one such flight, Commander Riccardi and I were carrying three Marines across country, to pick up a new prototype gunship near Eglin AFB, in northern Florida. We had a couple of planned stops along the way. Reality was a huge, wide fence of Thunderstorms that cut the nation in two, right in our path.
Our air controller, Albuquerque Center, took all of our options away by ordering us to land until the violent storm passed over. A similar order went out to other aircraft in the vicinity, and several other jets and cargo planes spiraled down to land with us.
We landed just ahead of the storm front that was busy spawning tornadoes and spearing anything shiny with lightning bolts. We dashed in ahead of the rain, joining the small crowd of aviators at the OPS shack/snack bar of the Los Alamos airport. The delay would be at least an hour, so we settled down to eat with everyone else.
On the walls, virtually every inch of paint was covered with aviation patches of almost every military squadron and aircraft type since 1940. I wandered over to check them out and was so engaged when I noticed other aircraft coming down to land in the rain shower outside.
The motley collection of Air Force, Navy, and spook planes were joined by a snappy white T-38 Talon. It plopped down and taxied almost right up to the door of the Operations Building. I watched the 2-man crew deplane and read the markings on its side -- "Shuttle Training and Chase". The patch on the taller pilot's shoulder said it all -- Woof! A real live Shuttle pilot!
Then the pilots brushed past me on their way to the Duty Desk. I told the woman at the counter, "Hey, that guy looks like Chuck Yeager!" She replied, "You think so?", and I responded, "Hell, it looks JUST like General Yeager!"
In a moment, he arrived at the desk, and began calling the sergeant everything but white! The gist of the "conversation" was that he didn't need ANYONE telling him when it was safe to fly, and why wouldn't she send a refueling truck to his aircraft?! We all watched the tirade, and wondered what she could do to get out of it.
I will leave out all the name-calling and Yeager's use of every four-letter word in our language. But, damn if the little duty sergeant didn't stand up to him!
"General, Sir; even if you order me, no fuel truck will budge while we have lightning coming down on the field." (By this point, the storm had struck with a frenzy of rain and crashing thunder.) She leaned forward, "It's not going to happen."
He stomped off to the WX (weather desk), in search of easier prey. I went back to the table Rick and I shared with our three Marine passengers. I told the Marines what happened, but they were unimpressed -- Marines are quite used to getting screamed at by Generals.
Soon, both Yeager and the Space Shuttle pilot strode into the Snack Bar, and Major Hill asked why I didn't go ask Yeager for his autograph. I responded that the General didn't seem to eager to deal with enlisted scum.
Major Hill thought for a second, and reached across the table to pull the Velcro nametag off his startled companion's flight suit. He did the same to me, exchanging the tag on my chest. He asked the Marine 2LT with him if he minded, and the horrified pilot just mumbled no. (Generally, a 2LT doesn't 'mind' anything a Major does to him.)
To short this a bit, Yeager agreed to sign his autograph, but refused to sign a napkin. Luckily, I had a business card from a local Porsche repair shop, and he deigned that appropriate for his signature.
His last comment to me, after sizing up my long Navy hair and battered flight suit, was, "You ain't no f***ing Marine Second Lieutenant!"
By then, I was already thanking him and scurrying back to our aircraft to begin fueling (the storm was almost past, and the lightning was gone).
Being told by General Yeager that I didn't pass for an officer was one of the high-lights of my career -- meeting him wasn't. Honestly, I would rather have not met him, and kept my fantasy of him as a professional combat pilot, instead of an arrogant old retired General...
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Last Modified: Sunday July 05, 2009