As Pakistan approaches the fiftieth anniversary of the 1971 War with India, which resulted in the severance of its eastern wing and the creation of Bangladesh, it will miss one of its staunchest supporters during the war.
Brigadier General Chuck Yeager, known for shattering the sound barrier for the first time in 1947, was posted as the United States’ Defense Representative to Pakistan in 1971 — has broken the final barrier — crossing the threshold into the next world on December 7, 2020.
Chuck Yeager is well known to my generation because of his various achievements and support to Pakistan. From 1971 to 1973, at the behest of US Ambassador to Pakistan, Joseph Farland, who had a soft corner for Pakistan, Yeager was assigned to advise the Pakistan Air Force (PAF).
Some readers may recall that despite Pakistan being embroiled in a war against secession in its Eastern wing, in July 1971, Islamabad, with the help of Joseph Farland, organized US National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger’s clandestine visit to Beijing and lay the groundwork for Richard Nixon’s formal visit to China and establish diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic after 25 years of keeping it in oblivion.
Back in Pakistan, when the 1971 war broke out, Yeager volunteered to confirm every kill by the PAF in the western theatre. He flew on PAF’s helicopter teams documenting downed Indian Air Force (IAF) aircraft, counting the wrecks on Pakistani soil, tallying their serial numbers, engines or other components.
Another anecdote pertaining to the era is worth mentioning. A small passenger aircraft that was assigned by the Pentagon to Yeager was damaged during an air raid by the IAF at a Pakistani airbase during the 1971 war.
Edward C. Ingraham, a US diplomat who had served as political counselor to Ambassador Farland in Islamabad, recalled this incident in the Washington Monthly of October 1985: “ After Yeager’s Beechcraft was destroyed during an Indian air raid, he raged to his cowering colleagues that the Indian pilot had been specifically instructed by Indira Gandhi to blast his plane. ‘It was,’ he later wrote, ‘the Indian way of giving Uncle Sam the finger.’” Yeager was incensed over the incident and demanded US retaliation, which never came.
Although a legend in the aeronautical community, Yeager’s accomplishments were not widely known until the 1979 publication of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff and the subsequent movie which highlighted Yeager’s career as a test pilot, making him an immensely popular public figure.
Chuck Yeager’s story may appear to be a tale from rags to riches but it is an epic of true grit and determination of a young boy, who was born in humble background but dreamed of not only flying but reaching out into space.
Chuck Yeager started his military career by enlisting as a private in the US Army Air Forces (USAAF) on September 12, 1941, and became an aircraft mechanic. His mechanical aptitude would hold him in good stead not only in his flying career but later as a test pilot. At enlistment, Yeager was not eligible for flight training because of his age and educational background, but the entry of the US into World War II less than three months later prompted the USAAF to alter its recruiting standards.
He received his pilot wings and a promotion to flight officer (Warrant Officer) and after completing training as a fighter pilot, he was shipped to the UK, where Yeager flew P-51 Mustangs in combat with the 363rd Fighter Squadron. After achieving one kill, Yeager was shot down over France but he soon escaped to Spain with the help of the Maquis (French Resistance) and returned to England on May 15, 1944. During his stay with the Maquis, Yeager endeared himself to the guerrillas by helping them construct bombs thanks to his mechanical skills.
Yeager demonstrated outstanding flying skills and combat leadership. On October 12, 1944, he became the first pilot in his group to make “ace in a day,” downing five enemy aircraft in a single mission. Two of these kills were scored without firing a single shot: when he flew into firing position against a Messerschmitt Bf 109, the pilot of the aircraft panicked, breaking to starboard, colliding with his wingman. He finished the war with 11.5 official victories, including one of the first air-to-air victories over a jet fighter, a German Me 262 that he shot down as it was on final approach for landing.
After the war, Yeager continued his career in the Air Force, becoming a test pilot and was selected by the USAAF to fly the rocket-powered Bell XS-1 in a project of National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which was the forerunner of NASA to research high-speed flight. On October 14, 1947, Yeager shattered the “sound barrier” flying at 700 miles per hour (Mach 1.06) 43,000 feet above the southern California desert.
The achievement had a twist because unknown to his supervisors, two days before the test flight, Yeager broke two ribs when he fell from a horse. Not wanting to miss the historic opportunity, he had his ribs taped but was in such pain that he could not seal the X-1’s hatch by himself. A confidant helped him, using the end of a broom handle as an extra lever, to allow Yeager to seal the hatch.
This single feat revolutionized space research and unfathomed the intricacies of transonic and supersonic flight. Yeager was keen to become an astronaut but his lack of college education impeded his selection. Yet he trained future astronauts and flew with Neil Armstrong on a test mission.
He progressed in his air force career completing the war course and various command assignments, retiring in 1975. Despite his lack of higher education, he was honoured in his home state. Marshal University has named its highest academic scholarship, the Society of Yeager Scholars, in his honour.
In 1997, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier again at the age of seventy-four flying an F-15 Eagle, as part of the 50th birthday celebrations for the United States Air Force. On October 14, 2012, on the 65th anniversary of breaking the sound barrier, Yeager did it again at the age of 89, flying as co-pilot in an F-15. Farewell Chuck, you will remain forever in the hearts of aviation enthusiasts including this scribe.
Published in The News on December 14, 2020 by S.M. Hali