Sound barrier buster feted on 85th birthday
In a scene befitting his American hero image as the first man to break the sound barrier, Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager was honored Wednesday at Beale Air Force Base on his 85th birthday.
Standing in front of an SR-71 Blackbird spy plane that he once flew more than three times the speed of sound, the Penn Valley resident remembered the first time he came to Beale during World War II.
“I was a P-39 pilot at Oroville in 1943,” Yeager told a crowd of dignitaries and Air Force personnel at the base outside Marysville. “The military sent us down here to crawl under barbed wire with machine gun bullets going over us.
“What the hell that had to do with being a fighter pilot, I’ll never know, but that’s the military,” Yeager said, drawing a laugh that could be heard through hard, gusting winds that made flags fly straight.
“I’ve been flying Air Force airplanes for 65 years, 341 military airplanes all over the world. That won’t happen again,” Yeager said. Nowadays, military pilots only fly three or four planes during their career, he said.
Following his speech, four T-38 trainer jets used at Beale buzzed the crowd in a flyover tribute to the combat ace who shot down 13 aircraft during World War II. Yeager also was shot down over France, but survived and escaped over the Pyrenees Mountains to Spain and freedom with the help of the French Underground.
He became a test pilot after the war. On Oct. 14, 1947, he became the first man to fly faster than sound (around 700 mph) in a plane named “Glamorous Glennis,” named after his Grass Valley-native wife.
Yeager also flew in the Vietnam War and commanded Air Force units all over the world before retiring with Glennis to the Grass Valley area in the mid-1970s. After Glennis died, Yeager remarried to Victoria Yeager, who was at his side during the ceremony.
“It’s a fantastic day, the experience of a lifetime,” Victoria Yeager said. Famed musician Roy Clark had played at a party prior to the ceremony as a tribute to his fishing and hunting pal Yeager, she said.
Clark is Yeager’s “hero of the music world,” the pilot’s wife said.
“I wouldn’t have missed it for anything,” Clark said at the ceremony.
Asked what Yeager means to America, Clark said, “He doesn’t mean half much as he should to the young people.”
In a question and answer session with the media, Yeager was asked how he made it to 85.
“I don’t know. I’m afraid to find out,” Yeager said. “At my age, you live to enjoy it.”
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