Chuck Yeager is a living legend. He’s the first man to break the sound barrier and his work as a pioneering test pilot laid the foundation for what would become the US space program.
He also has a reputation for being … well … kind of a prick. But when you’ve been credited with 11.5 kills in the skies over Europe during WWII (including 5 in a single mission) after being shot down, nearly captured, having evaded and successfully lobbied to return to combat against official policy, you can afford such a reputation.
The main thing about Yeager … it’s not that he’s a prick. It’s that he’s allergic to nonsense. As arguably history’s quintessential fighter pilot, he doesn’t believe in wasting energy, and exudes this ethos not just in the cockpit, but across the full range of his interactions with others.
His recent activity on Twitter is a vivid example. Over the past few weeks, @GenChuckYeager has been on a roll, proficiently dismissing idiots and bashing trolls with sardonic glee. His pithy responses do dumb questions have become a cause celebre … with the 93-year-old’s longstanding preference for terse syntax proving an ideal fit for exchanges built on 140-character volleys.
But it’s not just fun and games. Again, the man doesn’t waste energy. Behind the snark-laden veneer of Yeager’s recent Tweeting lies a well of wisdom harboring lessons that stretch back to before there was a United States Air Force. Three recent examples demonstrate Yeager’s gift for subtlety, as he sounds blunt while implying lessons rich with nuance.
Too many people answer this question with a cliche, invoking wistful childhood memories of aerial demonstrations or pop culture references when the truth is many of them wandered into flying or discovered it in a far less poetic way. Answers to this question usually sound like they want their own theme music. Yeager makes the somewhat startling admission that he didn’t get into flying for the reasons most people imagine. He doesn’t waste energy making up a cool-sounding answer. This kind of truth is refreshing.
It’s also enlightening. Not all pilots — in fact, not even most — are cut from the stereotypical cloth. Over the past 50 years or so, the Air Force has persuaded itself that a fighter pilot is created in a very certain and very narrow way. But many of the best pilots don’t have the approved pedigree. Many were born and bred not imagining a career in aviation, and yet grew into the best and brightest in the craft.
Yeager is one of the best pilots — if not the best — in the history of the Air Force … and he started his career turning wrenches years before there was such a thing as an Academy. He found his way into flying by chance and twist of circumstance, and it turned out he was damn good at it. If we acknowledge this is how it happens sometimes, it leads to a far different pilot selection model than the one currently fielded, which eliminates too many candidates from consideration because they don’t fit a certain mold.
Think ahead. Know your stuff. Focus. This is the kind of simple prescription the Air Force once embraced but has long since abandoned in an age where technocrats are celebrated and purebread warriors are derided as anachronistic.
But if the Air Force cares about being able to fight and win wars, it must carefully limit the downward reach of toxic bureaucracy and protect this simple recipe for its warrior class — to the extent it still exists.
Yeager is saying something simple that when unpacked can served as a prescription for how to organize and lead an aviation enterprise. When pilots have time to study and the freedom to focus with depth and consistency on mastering the complexities of flying, they’ll be great at the basics and ready for what might go wrong. It’s the job of generals to preserve this idea as an organizational guide. They’ve been failing at that charge for a long time.
Finally, there’s this little gem:
Yeager doesn’t say “on the one hand this, on the other hand that” … or “it’s good for X but not as good for Y.” He just flat-out commits to a position and implies he’s perfectly capable of defending it.
There’s something to be said for calling it like it is. How much of the unfolding F-35 debacle is about generals rationalizing the value of a weapon with clearly debilitating weaknesses and an excessive price tag? Where might we be if they’d taken Yeager’s attitude years ago instead of prevaricating?
Building an airplane that doesn’t perform well enough to justify its price tag is a waste of energy on a national scale. It’s a very un-fighter-pilot thing to do … ironically being done largely by fighter pilots.
In a sense, Yeager is the legend the Air Force never wanted … a working class kid from the West Virginia hollers who worked his way into aviation without the benefit connections or degrees. He didn’t want glory … he just enjoyed kicking the enemy’s ass. When there were no more live enemies to fight, he took on the laws of nature, and became the greatest fighter pilot in the world without official approval.
But that’s just what he does. The answer to the question “why is Chuck Yeager on Twitter?” is simple: he’s looking for a new fight, and has realized social media is a great and fun battleground. Head over to Twitter if you want to see Yeager breaking the nonsense barrier.