Saturday, November 30, 2013

Book review: "Yeager" by Chuck Yeager

"Yeager" is stuffed full of great stories. You probably know Chuck Yeager as the pilot who broke the sound barrier and that story, of course, is included. But there's a lot more.

There's exciting stories about World War II dogfighting. There's a story about Yeager running for his life behind enemy lines after being shot down. There are many breathtaking stories about flying high-powered aircraft to record speeds and heights. And there are crashes. Yeager acknowledges that he's lucky to be alive.

Yeager also throws in good stories about interesting people, like pilot Jaqueline Cochran and bar owner Pancho Barnes. There's a surprising story about spying on the Soviet Union and very funny one about golden trout (yes, the fish).

It's hard to believe one man experienced so much in one life. I deliberately took my time reading this book, because I wanted to enjoy each story fully, without rushing on to the next one.

I really liked that the book includes "other voices" short sections from Yeager's wife and colleagues that help provide extra perspective.

The book is in first-person, but co-written by Leo Janos. While it's impossible to know how much Janos actually wrote, I suspect he deserves a lot of credit. Why? Because more than once does the book mention that Yeager, while a master pilot, had little grasp of basic English. "He could barely construct a recognizable sentence," recalls an Air Force general who knew Yeager.

I was fairly shocked by the poor treatment Yeager got from the military while he was risking his life flying experimental planes. For years, he got no promotion and his family had to crowd into a barely habitable shack. (Yeager eventually moved up and finally became a general near the end of his career.)

I was bothered a bit by Yeager's callous attitude toward the many people he saw die in his military service, but he makes it clear that it comes with the territory.

"I got mad at the dead: Angry at them for dying so young and so senselessly; angry at them for destroying expensive government property as stupidly as if they had driven a Cadillac off a bridge. Anger was my defense mechanism. I've lost count of the how many good friends have augered in [crashed] over the years, but either you become calloused or you crack."

One minor complaint: Sometimes Yeager uses aviation or military phrases that could use some translation: "Dead stick landing," aileron, "bird colonel." It's not a big problem, but a sentence here and there could have made things a bit clearer.

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