General Chuck Yeager recently shared his incredible story of blasting through the sound barrier with students, teachers and guests at Sage Ridge School in Reno. The parents of Matthew Johnston, a senior at the school, invited Yeager to visit and talk about his adventures flying jets.
Yeager surprised the audience when he told them that only four people worked on the Bell X-1, the jet that would propel him through the sound barrier and into the history books. "Nothing was ever done on the X-1 that I didn't do," he told students. He laughed and said that today it takes hundreds of people to design a military jet. And millions of dollars. Yeager says the military spent 68 thousand dollars for every P-51 Mustang fighter plane built during WWII. Today fighter jets cost upwards of 150 million dollars each.
Yeager enlisted in the Army Air Corps after he graduated from high school. He didn't start out as a pilot, and says he got terribly sick during his first flight in the back seat of a military plane. Eventually he was hooked and began flight school in 1942. In 1947 the military was trying to find a way to fly beyond Mach 1, faster than the speed of sound. Yeager was a relatively young pilot who had flown combat missions in WWII. "Why was I picked to fly the X-1? Because I knew that jet better than anyone else," he said. He told the students that other pilots may have been more experienced fliers, but he knew the systems on the airplane, and taught himself what to do if something went wrong.
One of the teachers asked Yeager if he had any advice for the kids. "Nobody ever gave me any advice," he said. But he did encourage the students to work hard and pay attention to detail. He says he always looked for trouble spots that might "bust his butt" in an airplane. He believes thinking ahead and paying attention kept him alive during combat, and later as a test pilot.
When asked if he ever thought about quitting, he said, "One thing you have to realize is why military guys like myself do things; it's Duty. That was my job." Another asked if, as a kid, he ever thought he'd accomplish such amazing feats. Yeager chuckled, "We have a saying in the military, if they tell you to do something and you don't do it, they shoot you." That drew a big laugh from the audience.
Yeager retired in 1975, but in 1997 he hopped in a jet and broke the sound barrier again– this time in front of thousands of people– to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his successful flight in the Bell X-1. He still consults and flies at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He didn't set out to become famous, and says he was just doing what was necessary to further the country's mission.
The students were thrilled to share a room with the man who helped pave the way for future space exploration. "I'm very glad I heard him. I never thought I'd get so much knowledge about flying a plane," said seventh grader George Shappell. "He had to be very focused and not many people could pull that off," he added.
The students gave Yeager a standing ovation when he took the stage and after he was finished speaking. Proving that even today's teens recognize and respect someone who works hard and has the right stuff.