"How many pilots do we have in the audience today?" asked the day's featured speaker at the Aerospace Museum of California in Sacramento, California. Virtually every hand in the large crowd went up, bringing a smile to the old man's face.
General Charles Elwood "Chuck" Yeager, perhaps the best known pilot in the world, is widely regarded as one of history's most skilled and accomplished practitioners of the craft. The first person to fly faster than sound, in the famous Bell X1 on October 14, 1947, he's flown over 350 types of military aircraft in over 60 years of flying. At 88, he's still healthy and sharp—and still regularly flies both military and GA aircraft.
The General's two-hour talk and video presentation, an FAA-sponsored safety seminar, were mainly autobiographical, sharing experiences from his long and storied flying career. Generations of pilots have regarded General Yeager as the epitome of competence and confidence in the cockpit and with good reason. A World War II ace with 13 victories, the test pilot who set the standard for all test pilots, a battle-tested military commander, and the ultimate aviation safety expert, General Yeager has accumulated enough accomplishments for several flying careers.
There's a danger, though, in putting the man on a pedestal. We're tempted to attribute his incredible record to superhuman talent, the "right stuff," something that we mere mortals can admire but never aspire to. But while few pilots will ever match his achievements, we can all benefit tremendously from his example. I believe we can and should aspire to the standard he has set.
General Yeager built his career on flying in high-pressure situations, from combat to flight testing leading-edge aircraft. He offered some insight into how he was consistently able to face these situations with confidence and calm and take effective action.
"When you're flying in combat, you might die," said Yeager. "It's out of your control, so you might as well put it out of your mind and focus completely on what you have to do." His point is that when you've done all the preparation you can, there's no point in worrying. It only distracts from the task at hand. This reminded me very much of the observe-act-observe cycle that I've experienced in my own flying. It's much easier to be confident when my attention is focused on the current situation and my possible courses of action.
On the importance of preparation, General Yeager told the story of how he approached the Bell X1 flight test program. He described sitting in the cockpit on the ground and asking himself, "How can this thing kill me? And what can I do to prevent it?" He would then develop a plan for every eventuality he could concoct. One such scenario was main battery failure prior to lighting the rockets. The X1 was designed to be landed dead-stick, with no fuel on board. To land it with a load of fuel would have caused a gear collapse, producing a deadly fireball. The airplane was equipped with a fuel-jettison valve, but it was electrically operated. Without battery power and with a full load of fuel, he'd be a dead man. So he rigged up a nitrogen canister in the cockpit with a copper line leading to the fuel-jettison valve, allowing him to open the valve remotely without the battery. Sure enough, on his very first flight after breaking the sound barrier, the battery became disconnected when the X1 was dropped from its B-29 carrier aircraft. His modification allowed him to jettison the fuel and land safely.
"I was lucky," he said, "but sometimes you make your own luck!"
A thorough knowledge of the aircraft and its systems is a cornerstone of General Yeager's safety philosophy. He insists on a cockpit checkout in every airplane he's about to fly for the first time, no matter how much experience he has in the make and model. He wants to learn everything he can about that particular airplane before he takes it into the air. Meticulous and disciplined preparation on the ground allows him to direct his full attention to flying the airplane once airborne. That's his approach to aviation. He doesn't worry; he plans. Hearing this, I felt all the more grateful for the opportunities I've had to contribute to the maintenance of my club's airplanes under the supervision of our excellent mechanic. There's always more to learn!
As one might expect of such a man, General Yeager does not mince words. He offered frank, unvarnished opinions on topics ranging from military inefficiency to pork-barrel politics to pilots who take stupid risks in airplanes.
"I have no sympathy for a pilot who tries to use an airplane for something it wasn't designed to do!" he told us. "Like rolling your wheels on the water—what are you trying to prove?"
He had similarly harsh words for the Reno Air Races. "I went there once and watched them kill three pilots and destroy three of my beloved P-51s. I never went back."
His message was clear: observe your aircraft's operating limitations and don't take needless risks for your ego's sake.
As my wife Janet and I waited in line for the shuttle van to take us back to our airplane, the General and his wife got into their Toyota RAV4 (with personalized license plate BELLX1A) and drove away—with the General at the wheel, of course!
Thank you, General Yeager, for your lifetime of service to your country and to all of us pilots whom you've inspired. We follow in your footsteps—even if we can't fill your shoes!
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