Yeager – words are his wings

Filed in Autobiography by on February 16, 2013 2 Comments

Chuck Yeager

Yeager is a rip-roaring autobiography which dips, ducks, dives and spins through test pilot Chuck Yeager’s exploits with such energy and speed it leaves you feeling giddy. But the book is not without its blindspots.

If you didn’t know better, you could finish Yeager’s account believing that he was the inspiration for the Six Million Dollar Man. Test pilot with superhuman skills and abilities. Icy calm demeanour. Laser-sharp vision. Brushes off air crashes  like they were just an inconvenience. Sweet red cape. Able to leap tall buildings with a single bound…

…Well, OK, so Chuck Yeager isn’t Superman. But to me he is one of the few people alive today who puts a case forward which justifies his reputation as a living legend. As the first person to break the sound barrier, the first person past mach two, an elite test pilot – the man has flown with (and against) the best, and lived to tell the tale.

If you hadn’t already noticed, at this point I probably should put my hand up and admit to being a bit of a Chuck Yeager fanboy. I first read his autobiography in my teens, and immediately started hero-worshipping the guy. I’ve probably re-read Yeager ten times since, and I still love the book as much as I did in the days when I watched Star Blazers and sported a proud flat-top.

So his story in a nutshell… Born and raised in (his words) a poor neighbourhood of the poorest county in one of the poorest states (West Virginia) in the United States, Yeager escaped by enlisting in the US Air Force just prior to WWII as an airplane mechanic and ended the war a decorated pilot officer after shooting down (and being shot down by) Nazis over occupied Europe.

Chuck Yeager and Glamorous GlennisHis big break arrived when his wife became pregnant, and the closest air base to her parent’s place was deep in the desert – Wright-Patterson (now Edwards) airfield; the home of the US jet fighter testing range. The rest is history. Yeager became the first person to break the sound barrier in the experimental Bell X-1 Glamorous Glennis and the first person past mach two. He flew in the Korean War, he flew in the Vietnam War and became America’s most elite test pilot, flying everything with wings. On the way he commanded a squadron of nuclear-armed fighter bombers based in Europe (in the days when the fighters didn’t have the range to make it back home; ie: it was a one-way trip), became Commandant of an elite US fighter school… I’m getting exhausted just typing it.

If by end of the book he said he had grown wings and turbojets and was able to fly under his own power I’d believe him. Not bad for a guy who only saw his first plane when he was fifteen years old.

But knowing the basics won’t ruin the book for you – one of the reasons this book is such a gem is Yeager’s easy storytelling style. It’s a very readable tale which goes lightly on his personal life and heavy on everything air force. He sprinkles the text with just enough ‘hogs’, ‘hollers’ and other West Virginianisms to give the book an authenticity which leaves you feeling that you’ve just gotten off the phone with him.. or that he had some help from a great ghostwriter.


Yeager the enigma

However if I do have a gripe about this book, it’s that Yeager keeps so much of himself hidden away. The book has more than 400 pages of planes, missions, crashes and dogfights, yet there’s surprisingly little insight about the man himself. For a pilot of his ability allowing such a blindspot can only be intentional. I guess if you’ve lived your life in the spotlight you are entitled to a little personal space – but it is the personal details which can make or break a book like this.

Many of his stories and anecdotes about his years spent flying in the desert are bookended by hints of the wild parties he and his comrades held in the local bar owned by wildcat Pancho Barnes. He devotes ten pages to his friendship with Barnes and her ‘establishment’ at one point, yet sanitizes anything even slightly left-of-centre.

We get only a glimpse of the close bonds forged between Yeager and his Cold War pilot colleagues – it’s captivating stuff and leaves you wanting more. Understandable? Yes, Disappointing? Of course.

To be honest, it doesn’t really matter. The book doesn’t really have any flat spots, and reads better than a script for an Indiana Jones movie… well better than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, anyway. Pfft,

Thanks to this book, Chuck Yeager is officially on my list of invitees to my ‘end of the world dinner party’… along with Winston Churchill, Mohammed Ali, maybe Jane Goodall. Man, can you imagine the stories at that table?

And even though he is about to turn 90, he is still flying fighter jets and keeping up with the latest technology – you can follow his Facebook and Twitter accounts here.

You know what, I was wrong. Chuck Yeager is Superman.

Yeager – an autobiography

Yeager – an autobiography

Yeager, a rip-roaring autobiography which dips, ducks, dives and spins through test pilot Chuck Yeager’s exploits with such energy and speed it leaves you feeling giddy.

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About the Author ()

Nick Buchan is currently writing his first novel ‘Leopard Tree’, available 2015. “A burnt-out police detective becomes embroiled in a child murder investigation while on African safari. Will this case send Detective Duffy over the edge?” Follow ‘Leopard Tree’ online at or

Comments (2)

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  1. What an interesting man.

    I had never heard of Mr Yeager before.

    Some people do amazing things in their lives and most of us don’t even know about it.

    Thank you for sharing your post.

    • Nick Buchan says:

      Thanks Michelle,

      It’s hard to believe that people who have lived lives like Mr Yeager’s actually did all the things that they include in their books – you couldn’t make up some of these stories!

      Events such as WW2 seem like they were so long ago, yet the people who were involved, such as Mr Yeager, are still going strong today. It’s an inspiration – and it makes history that little bit more real, and brings it closer to home.

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