He broke the sound barrier, battled Germans, and has been honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a special peacetime Congressional Silver Medal of Honor. At 86, Chuck Yeager (www.chuckyeager.com), retired major general in the Air Force, continues to fly and make personal appearances. Born in the poverty-stricken back woods of West Virginia, Gen. Yeager's life inspired Tom Wolfe's book and the 1983 movie "The Right Stuff." Recipient of the St. Barnabas Hance Award, he will be the featured speaker Thursday at the Omni William Penn for St. Barnabas Charities Founder's Day event. For information call 724-444-5530.
Q: What did you think of US Airways Capt. [Chelsey B.] Sullenberger's emergency landing in the Hudson River?
A: He only had one thing to do and he did it. The main thing is he had a smooth body of water. Had he been in the ocean, he would have lost his airplane and the people. But the Hudson River was smooth and there was also a couple of barges there that suspended the airplane. Since he was very light on fuel, the airplane floated for quite some time. You know, the guy did a beautiful job, but you've got to face the fact he had no other choice.
Q: Do you think coming from modest beginnings helped fuel your ambition?
A: I wasn't that way, you know. No, I never saw an airplane on the ground until I was 18 years old and enlisted in the Army Air Corps. So they didn't mean anything to me. Also, I was a very gifted mechanic and worked on airplanes. When I got in the military it looked like a pretty interesting occupation to get into so I applied for pilot training under the Flying Sergeant Program. I wasn't a cadet because I didn't have the two years of college and was 20 years old, so I went to flying school as an enlisted man.
Q: You were a gifted athlete, too.
A: Yeah, I was just at the right place at the right time and had the capability of taking advantage of the opportunities when they presented themselves.
Q: You had 20/10 eyesight. How is it today?
A: I had exceptional eyesight, and it pays off especially in combat. I could see planes coming half-again farther than the other pilots in the squadron. I still have 20/15 in each eye and I'm 86. I'm lucky.
Q: Did you have to learn to control your fear or were you naturally a fearless person?
A: No, I wasn't a fearless person. You know, like I say, you have to take advantage of every opportunity you have. I was a very lucky individual.
Q: After you were shot down and helping the French resistance and working your way back, is it true that ...
A: The French resistance took care of me for a couple of months. In fact. there were some 1,600 American airmen interned in Spain because Spain was a neutral country. Everyone of those airmen were helped through the Pyrenees mountains by the French people. I owe my life to them. Many other airmen owe their lives to the French people. They suffered and a lot of them were killed by the Germans, but they were very dedicated people. It's too bad people think the French weren't very nice, because man, you couldn't ask for a nicer people.
Q: ... is it true that you were worried about some money you had won in a poker game?
A: I never gambled except for one night, and it was the night before I got shot down. You know, you just put your ID card and your possessions in a bag and give it to the intelligence officer [before you left on a combat mission], and I didn't figure it [the money] would be there when I got back but it was.
Q: You have met heads of state, scientists and actors, but you never seem overly impressed by any of it.
A: Well, what are you famous for? I usually look at a person who's famous and think, 'What are you famous for,' you know? If it's nothing that has to do with anything I have an interest in, then I really don't pay a whole lot of attention.
Q: You've said in other interviews that you believe luck plays a role in the outcome of things -- what about God? Do you believe?
A: You know and I probably shouldn't say it, I don't believe in anything that doesn't have scientific evidence to back it up. Now you can make anything you can out of that. Religion was a way of life [growing up] and I had to go to Sunday school on Sunday and a prayer meeting on Wednesday, and I was baptized but that doesn't mean that I believe there's a life everlasting, ever after.
Q: Physically, what did it feel like to break the sound barrier?
A: There is no sound. You are in a pressurized airplane. The only effects approaching Mach 1 is buffeting like [you're] driving a car on a rough road.
Q: How do you feel about the fact that the Concorde is no more?
A: The Concorde was subsidized by the British and French governments, and if you took all the money from the 100 people that are sitting in a tube and flying from Paris to New York, it doesn't even buy the fuel. See, that's the reason you don't see airplanes today flying much beyond .85 Mach number because it's not economically feasible.
Q: Are you still flying?
A: Yes, I fly light stuff. A couple of years ago I quit flying F-16s and wound up 65 years in Air Force cockpits. Today I fly Huskies and other light planes. Oh, and also I was over in France last December flying the Airbus A380. I still get in a lot of airplanes. I was impressed. You know, it's like flying a hotel with wings. It was really interesting. It's a really wonderful airplane to fly.
Patricia Sheridan can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-2613.