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Remembering a legend

Many, including VP Pence, celebrate Gen. Chuck Yeager

By Brad McElhinny

Americans, including Vice President Mike Pence,  remembered a West Virginia legend whose many legendary accomplishments can only be summed up with one phrase, “The Right Stuff.”

“The life of Gen. Chuck Yeager will ever inspire,” Pence said during a memorial service Friday at the Charleston Convention & Visitors Bureau in Charleston.

His place in history was secured in 1947 when he became the first pilot to blow past the speed of sound. Yeager’s daring and understated swagger personified “The Right Stuff” associated with the test pilots who followed in his footsteps to become the first astronauts in the American space program. That phrase was the title of the Tom Wolfe  novel and 1983 biopic that traced Yeager’s inspiration.

Yeager died at age 97 on Dec. 7. He grew up  in Hamlin, Lincoln County. 

Those who honored Yeager ranged from the vice president to the Oak Ridge Boys to actress Barbara Eden to flying buddies to childhood friends from Hamlin. Although the vice president appeared in person most of the other speakers had been recorded.

“Chuck Yeager lived a great American life,” said Pence, the first speaker.

“We’ve all been inspired by the life and service and heroism of Gen. Chuck Yeager.”

Much of Pence’s memorial sketched Yeager’s biography, starting with his upbringing in the West Virginia hills.

“He grew up in humble circumstances,” Pence said. “It’s been said he grew up so deep in the holler they had to pump in the daylight.

 “Like so many of our greatest heroes, he seemed like an ordinary American kid.”

Charles Elwood Yeager was born in Myra, an unincorporated community in Lincoln County, where his father was a gas-well driller and the family farmed. The family moved to Hamlin, the county seat, when he was 5. He was a young outdoorsman with strong interests in hunting and fishing.

After graduating from Hamlin High School in 1941, Yeager enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army Air Forces and became an aircraft mechanic. His unusually keen vision and the United States’ entry into World War II provided his entry to flight training.

While stationed in England, Yeager flew P-51 mustangs but was shot down over France on his eighth mission. He escaped and returned to the air. On Oct. 12, 1944, Yeager downed five enemy aircraft in a single mission and finished the war credited with shooting down at least 12 German planes.

It was during this period that he began naming his planes “Glamorous Glennis,” after his first wife and the mother of Yeager’s four children. Glennis Yeager died in 1990.

In all, Yeager flew 64 combat missions.

After the war, Yeager remained in the military and became a test pilot at Muroc Army Air Field, now called Edwards Air Force Base. He was selected to fly a rocket-powered Bell XS-1 to research high-speed flight.

He broke the sound barrier on Oct. 14, 1947, flying the X-1 Glamorous Glennis at 700 miles an hour, Mach 1.06, at an altitude of 45,000 feet.

Because of the top-secret nature of the mission, Yeager’s feat was not announced to the public until months later in June 1948. Yeager set another speed record  Dec. 12, 1953, by flying two-and-a-half times the speed of sound in a Bell X-1A.

Actress Barbara Hershey, who played Glennis in “The Right Stuff,” described the fears  wives of test pilots lived with every day — that their husbands might not return.

In her recording Friday, Hershey recalled asking Yeager, “Did Glennis ever get emotional?”

“He said, ‘no, she never gets emotional. She throws things, but she’d never get emotional.’ That still makes me laugh.”

Symbols of Yeager’s fame are all over southern West Virginia. The gateway airport in Charleston bears his name, and his sculpted bust greets visitors in the terminal. Yeager Bridge on the West Virginia Turnpike leads crosses into Charleston. A generous academic scholarship at Marshall University is named for Yeager.

In 1985, President Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.

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