Frank Borman did not expect to hear a congratulations from Chuck Yeager one day in 1962—and that’s just as well because he didn’t get one. It wasn’t a surprise that Yeager wouldn’t extend much courtesy to the likes of Borman. There were rules, after all, and there was a hierarchy after all, and Yeager, who on Dec. 7 died at the age of 97, was then the commander of the flight school at Edwards Air Force Base in California, where test pilots were trained. Borman was just one more young Air Force officer who had scrapped and competed to be assigned to so coveted a billet as learning under Yeager—the first person to break the sound barrier, a feat he’d accomplished 15 years earlier.
At the time, a lot of Yeager’s officers were being seduced away by NASA, which promised them the chance not just to fly jets through the atmosphere, but rocket ships high above it. Neither man could know in 1962 what history had in store for Borman—that he would become not just any astronaut, but a figure on the space age’s Mt. Rushmore, commanding Apollo 8 in 1968, the first mission to orbit the moon. All they knew, as Borman told me in a conversation in 2015, was that he was one more young defector from Yeager’s flying family—and that would not make for an easy audience with his commander.
“Colonel,” Borman said when he presented himself before Yeager, who was seated at his desk going through paperwork, “I just got some good news.”
“What’s that?” Yeager said, looking up with only passing interest.
“I was just selected to go to NASA and join the astronaut corps.”
Yeager said nothing at first, merely nodding. Then, at last, he spoke. “Well Borman,” he said, “You can kiss your Air Force career goodbye.” Then he looked back down at his work.
If Yeager was gruff, and he was; if he was unsentimental, and he was; if he was brusque and dismissive and impossible to rattle but easy to annoy—and he was—there was almost no other way he could be. You don’t fly 64 combat missions in World War II—shooting down 13 German planes, including five in one day to earn the honorific of “flying ace”—without a tough hide. You don’t get shot down over France, suffering leg and head wounds, and elude capture by the German Army by hiking across the Pyrenees with French partisans, making it to neutral Spain and eventually returning to England, by being easily moved. And you don’t return to battle during the Vietnam War, at age 43 flying 127 missions, if you are easily unsettled by such existential matters as injury and death.
All of that was true of Yeager, and all of that would have been enough to earn him his own spot on aviation’s more modest Rushmore. But it was on Oct. 14, 1947 when Yeager truly chiseled his name in history, flying a Bell X-1 aircraft 13,000 m (43,000 ft.) above the Mojave desert, gunning his jet to nearly 1,125 km/hr (700 mph), thereby exceeding the speed of sound and producing the first sonic boom ever created by human beings.
The achievement was more than just the stuff of record-setting. At the time, nobody knew if challenging the sound barrier meant that the sound barrier would slap back, ripping to pieces any plane that tried to defy it. It didn’t, and shortly after his historic flight, Yeager spoke almost indifferently about the experience, pronouncing it “nice,” and adding that it was “just like riding a fast car.”
It was inevitable that the astronauts who trained under Yeager would eclipse their one-time mentor. What was flying an airplane compared to circling—and walking on—the moon, after all? Mention the name Yeager to school children in the 1960s and they’d look back at you blankly. But mention names like Glenn and Armstrong and Shepard and Lovell and Aldrin and Grissom and, yes, Borman? That would get a reaction.
It wasn’t until 1979, when Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff was released, and 1983 when the movie followed, that the world became reacquainted with Yeager. Wolfe understood what pilots understood: that it didn’t matter where a man ( they were all men then) flew his machines, or what kinds of machines they were. Aircraft or spacecraft—either way it was thousands or even millions of pounds of explosive, high-speed hardware controlled by a comparative fly-weight bit of human. The stakes were mortal, the whole exercise was madness, but that was what made it worth doing.
Wolfe fell all over himself applauding Yeager, calling him “the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff.” But Yeager did not think much of all that. Never mind that he flew a total of 341 different kinds of planes in his life; never mind that he not only broke the sound barrier the first time but many times after, at much higher speeds. Never mind that in 2002, at age 79, he flew an F-15 jet at a speed of more than 1,600 k/h (1,000 mph) just because he could. None of that, Yeager believed, was the result of any kind of natural “stuff”—right or not. It was practice; it was work; it was nothing more.
“There’s no such thing as a natural born pilot,” he told Borman and the other young hot-rodders who came to learn at his knee. “If you can walk away from a landing, it’s a good landing. If you can use the airplane the next day, it’s an outstanding landing.”
Yeager used lots of airplanes the next day over the course of his near-century-long life. And he taught uncounted other pilots to do the same. Honor his claim that he had no right stuff—and let’s hope he’d honor our belief that, yeah, he actually did.