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Boom Times

America's most famous pilot prepares to repeat history

Author John H. Houvouras

ILLUSTRATION BY PETER OUMANSKI

LAS VEGAS—He maybe pushing 90, but Chuck Yeager still looks pretty sprightly as he strides across the tarmac at Nellis Air Force base in his olive-green flight suit. Before him, an F-15 shimmers in the Nevada sun. If all goes according to plan, Yeager will go supersonic at 10:24 a.m.—the exact time he became the first person to break the sound barrier, 65 years ago today.

“The most g-force I ever pulled was 13,” Yeager informs his awed-looking young co-pilot as they approach the jet. “But please tell me we won’t be doing anything like that today. I’m 89, and that’s darn old.”

A crowd has gathered near the hangar to pay respect to the good ol’ boy from West Virginia who is now considered aviation royalty. A mobile staircase is rolled out, but Yeager waves it off. Instead, he climbs a 10-foot ladder to the cockpit. He and his co-pilot strap in, taxi down the runway and then roar over the horizon. Thirty-nine minutes later, a sonic boom rattles the earth.

Upon landing, Yeager is surrounded by the crowd, a returning hero. His face momentarily hardens into a quit-yer-fussin’ expression, then reluctantly eases into a grin. “Looking back, it was probably my greatest accomplishment,” Yeager says when asked about the first time he broke the sound barrier. “I knew that was the moment we had opened up the universe. From there, we could get into space.”

A few moments later, Yeager turns and walks toward another plane, a private jet that will take him to another engagement: a funeral for a friend, a pilot he knew from way back. The hero’s gait is a little stiffer now, but it remains determined. There is still purpose in his stride.

2 Responses to “Boom Times”

  1. Victoria Yeager Says:
    February 4th, 2013 at 6:50 pm

    That was quite an exciting day. General Yeager, whom the Pakistani Prince calls a mountain goat, at age 89, climbed up the ladder – no staircase for him. Jack Houvouras, an excellent journalist and author of this article, was able to stand next to the runway as Gen Yeager landed after this anniversary flight. General Yeager had a full year: visited the troops in Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Qatar, visited friends in Pakistan, diplomacy. And the broke the sound barrier. Again.

  2. Heidi Says:
    February 4th, 2013 at 7:02 pm

    That’s pretty impressive. I hope I’m in that good a shape when I’m approaching 90.

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