All this week, West Virginians have mourned the death of one of the state’s native sons.
Most people think of Chuck Yeager as the first man to break the sound barrier in controlled, level flight. What folks don’t know is that he was every bit as phenomenal an outdoorsman as he was a pilot.
“Being raised in a rural area was a real asset,” Yeager told me in a 2002 interview. “Putting meat on the table turned out to be a terrific experience.”
Blessed with superb eyesight and hand-eye coordination, Yeager spent his youth hunting squirrels and rabbits near his Lincoln County home. With a bolt-action .22 rifle, he shot rabbits on the run and learned to head-shoot squirrels to preserve more meat.
“From the time I was 6 years old, hunting was a way of life for me,” he said. “The animals I shot supplemented the food on our table.”
The skills he acquired with that .22 helped him survive in the dangerous skies over Europe during World War II.
He instinctively understood “deflection shooting” — leading the target so the bullet and the target arrive in the same place at the same time. He became an “ace in a day” by shooting down five German Bf-109 fighters in a single mission, and scored 13 kills before the war’s end.
After the war, he became arguably the most accomplished test pilot the world had ever seen. Flying the Bell X-1 rocket plane, he broke the sound barrier in 1947 and went on to set many more speed and altitude records.
He never lost his love for the outdoors. Yeager hunted and fished all over the world, and in so doing he earned as sterling a reputation for excellence in those pursuits as he had for his flying.
“I’ve hunted with a lot of folks, and I think Chuck may be the finest shot I’ve ever hunted with,” said Jim Zumbo, former hunting editor for Outdoor Life magazine.
“One time, just before a hunt, we were sighting in our rifles at a target 200 yards away. Chuck’s shots hit about 2 inches below the nail that held the target to a tree. I said, ‘Why don’t you just hit the nail?’ He did, with the very next shot.”
Yeager hunted partridges in Spain with Generalissimo Francisco Franco, roe deer in Germany, quail in California, and deer and elk in Canada. He fished for halibut and salmon in Alaska, and trout in Patagonia and New Zealand.
Every year for as long as he was physically able, he backpacked dozens of miles into California’s Sierra Nevada mountains to fish for golden trout at altitudes of 12,000 to 13,000 feet.
When author Thomas Wolfe declared that Yeager and other test pilots possessed a rare quality he called “the right stuff,” Yeager was asked whether he, or any human, could have it. “All I know is that golden trout have it — in spades,” he said.
Despite his reputation as a hunter, Yeager never sought trophies.
“I’m not a trophy hunter, never have been,” he told me, embellishing the thought with characteristically salty language. “You can’t eat the damn horns.
“I’m a meat hunter. That’s the way I approach it. The first legal animal I see, I shoot. That’s why I’ve never hunted in Africa. It’s a trophy game over there, and that doesn’t interest me in the slightest.”
He grew up using his rifle to put meat on the table, and he stayed with that mindset until old age overtook him. He was 97.
Rest well, General. You earned it. May the wind always be in your favor, and may your beloved golden trout — those “jewels of the Sierras” — always rise for you.