The passing of Brigadier-General Chuck Yeager a few days ago has been met with an outpouring of recognition, remembrance and praise such as few people receive. He appears to have been one of nature’s genuinely “nice people”, approachable, gentlemanly and filled with the joy of life. I never had the privilege of knowing him, but after reading his autobiography and its sequel, it felt as if I did. He had a raconteur’s gift. Decades after their first publication, his books remain popular.
Fellow blogger Murphy’s Law has a personal reminiscence of General Yeager that encapsulates the kind of man he was. You can read the whole thing at his blog. Highly recommended.
My closest encounter with General Yeager wasn’t with the man himself, but with an aircraft that he loved. Back in the mid-1970’s, Northrop developed the F-20 Tigershark, the culmination of its successful F-5A/B Freedom Fighter and F-5E/F Tiger II light fighter programs.
(Image courtesy of Wikipedia)
Intended as a simpler, cheaper competitor to the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the F-20 was aimed at overseas markets that didn’t require the sophistication of the former aircraft, or that couldn’t afford it. Sadly, it was doomed by a US government decision to subsidize the sales of F-16’s, which made the F-20 uneconomical by comparison. Three prototypes were built, but the aircraft never entered serial manufacture. General Yeager flew the F-20 frequently, and loved the aircraft, regarding it as a true pilot’s airplane. He invested in the project, and lost his money when it failed.
Be that as it may, by some unknown means a set of blueprints for the F-20 ended up in South Africa during the mid-1980’s. At the time, the country was trying to design its own supersonic fighter (about which I wrote some years ago). In the process, a large amount of foreign design material was “acquired”, by fair means or foul, and studied.
As it was later explained to me, there was a school of thought that proposed South Africa should build its own version of the Tigershark, as the latter’s electronics were less complex than many of its competitors, and therefore better suited to replacement by South African components. However, its outstanding performance depended on its turbofan engine, producing greater thrust than anything available to South Africa at the time; and this was improved even further by the use of lightweight materials that were not available to that country either. To re-engine the F-20 with an older-technology, lower-thrust, higher-weight turbojet (in a heavier fuselage) would have been very complicated from an engineering perspective, and would have reduced its performance to a level not much better than South Africa’s 1970’s-vintage Mirage F1 fighters. Therefore, the project was shelved in favor of what became the Carver program.
Thus, as I said, I never met General Yeager, but I did have distant contact with an aircraft he flew and loved. I guess that’ll have to do!
In this video, the late General discusses air combat from World War II through the Vietnam War. Aviation enthusiasts will enjoy it.
American Spectator summed up the General’s passing:
There was so much in the life of this warrior, patriot, and brave aviation innovator that exemplifies the best that America has produced. The Greatest Generation produced none greater than Gen. Chuck Yeager of West By-God Virginia, America, and the skies of the world. May he rest in peace with our eternal gratitude.
I love the way cartoonist Bill Bramhall of the New York Daily News saw the news of Chuck Yeager’s death. Click that link for a larger view at the newspaper’s Web site.
Godspeed, General Yeager, sir, and watch out for angels up there. I suspect they have the right of way!