Yeager: An Autobiography, by Gen. Chuck Yeager and Leo Janos. Toronto and New York: Bantam Books. 343 pp. $17.95. In retrospect, it couldn't be an accident that such a man as Chuck Yeager showed up when he did.
A young man stunningly well-endowed for the sky adventure he craved, he was (and at 61, probably still is) a formidable combination of fearless curiosity, technical skill, seat-of-the-pants intuition, legendary eyesight, perfect physical coordination, along with endless ingenuity, a tough competitiveness more playful than egotistical, the American ``can-do'' kind of modesty, and a cool and (as it turned out) rather cosmic daring.
What other kind of flier could have ushered in the supersonic age?
In Yeager's just-published autobiography, the reader meets a skinny, shy hillbilly hero ready and eager for every one of his great moments -- increasingly awesome to his fellow test pilots, and never one to fret about when he got the credit.
It's a story told with easy naturalness and a plainly audible West Virginia drawl. ``Other voices'' chime in on Yeager from time to time, to tell their slice of this remarkable life: his wife, Glennis, a daring spirit in her own right; his longtime flying buddy, Maj. Clarence E. (Bud) Anderson; another World War II ace, Capt. Bill (Obie) O'Brien; commanding officers like Gen. Albert G. Boyd and Maj. Gen. Fred Ascani; and others. The recollections are vivid and choice.
But you start with young Chuck in poverty-pocket childhood, where, from lack and from his hardworking parents, he learned the basics of decency, resourcefulness, and simple survival.
Straight out of high school, he joined the Army Air Corps and discovered the love of his life -- dogfighting, in any kind of plane at all. In World War II he was the first pilot Bud Anderson could remember who acquired ``ace'' status in a single mission: five enemy planes shot down. Yeager himself was shot down over Nazi-occupied France, and escaped into Spain only with the help of the French Resistance. Stubbornly refusing stateside orders, he kept on fighting in the war in Europe.
Then came that incredible day in October 1947 when the ``sound barrier'' was Yeager's next kill. Heart-stopping turbulence, actually shock-waves that slammed against ailerons and stabilizer at 700 m.p.h. or better, had led to belief in an invisible wall of air that would smash a plane at ``Mach 1,'' the speed of sound, or 760 m.p.h. at sea level, 660 m.p.h. at 40,000 feet.
The Yeager story has its macho side, and you will never hear pleas for ``human rights'' from a man who risked his own life daily, and Yeager is in every way the ``hunter'' his name implies. (``J"agger,'' or ``hunter,'' is an earlier, German form of his name.) But it's a life story that leaves its own legacy of courage and daring -- to men, women, and kids alike.