On a hot afternoon in July of 1987 I strolled from my office at A-1 Business Electronics on Sierra Highway in Palmdale California to the 7-Eleven store around the corner on Palmdale Boulevard, a few hundred feet away. Slurpee time. As I entered the store, there were about eight or nine people there, in various stages of committing commerce. But my heart stopped for a moment when I saw who one of the customers was.
It was Chuck Yeager, the first man ever to break the sound barrier, the first man ever to fly at Mach 2; wartime ace, test pilot extraordinaire; the man who personified “The Right Stuff”; legendary aviator and American icon.
Palmdale at that time was the fastest-growing city in California, for several reasons. A house that cost a million bucks a few miles down the road in L-A was about 175 grand in Palmdale; you could commute to a job in L-A proper in reasonable time on great freeways; Palmdale was the home of Air Force Plant 42, where the B-2 Stealth Bomber was being built, and it’s a hop-skip-and-a-jump from Edwards Air Force Base, where Yeager and the other test pilots hung their helmets.
I caught Yeager’s eye and smiled; he smiled back. I came up to him and said “mind if I shake your hand?” He extended his hand without hesitation. We had a very brief conversation, maybe two minutes. I mentioned that I’d met Bob Hoover at the EAA Fly-In in Oshkosh a few years ago, and now that I’d met Yeager, I figured I’d met the two best pilots that ever lived. He laughed, talked a bit about his buddy Bob Hoover, who was Chuck’s wingman when he first broke the speed of sound (at Edwards Air Force Base in 1947, back when it was called “Muroc Army Air Field”), and I chided him about his recent “movie star” cameo in the movie “The Right Stuff” and his TV ads for AC Delco.
I joked that if he had a better agent, today we’d be calling it a “Yeager boom” instead of a “sonic boom”. I’m sure he’d heard that one a million times. Small talk, but he was a gentleman through-and-through and smiled and laughed and made me feel like he enjoyed the conversation. He paid for his pack of chewing gum and got into his big black Chevy truck and headed out.
At that time, in 1987, Yeager had already retired from the Air Force and was working as a consultant up at Edwards AFB. He was paid the sum of one dollar a year, just so he’d be covered by worker’s comp. He was 64 years old on that summer day I met him, and he was still flying the hottest stuff the US had to offer. At the annual air show at Edwards AFB on October 17th last year, the 86-year-old Yeager opened the show, flying an F-16 fighter jet over the crowd and breaking the sound barrier….just as he had done for the first time in history when he was a 24-year-old test pilot at the controls of the Bell X-1.
Chuck Yeager turns 87 tomorrow. A few days ago, I noticed a Facebook friend of mine who runs the Young Eagles program for the Experimental Aircraft Association had become Facebook friends with Yeager. Wow – Yaeger is on Facebook?! I sent him a “friend request”, adding a small note that we’d met briefly in Palmdale many years ago, and that I was glad to see he’s still goin’ strong.
He replied the next day confirming my friend request…with a note saying “I remember you- you’re the big guy from Wisconsin. We talked about Bob Hoover at the 7-Eleven on Palmdale Boulevard”.
A two-minute chat, 23 years ago – and he remembered. I was blown away.