On December 7, 2020 the aviation community lost a legend of the industry. Chuck Yeager was an Ace fighter pilot in World War II, a historic test pilot, author and even had some acting experience in movies and TV commercials. When I was growing up, I idolized Mr. Yeager. He was larger than life and was the hero type for an airplane obsessed kid like me growing up in the 1970s and 80s. I read his two autobiography books, I clipped out his advertisements for AC Delco and the F-20 that were in the magazines. He had done it all in the aviation world and was the coolest pilot in the world in my eyes.
I always said if I ever had the chance to meet him, I would do so. I finally had the opportunity to meet him on August 9, 2003. At the time, the Thunder Over Michigan airshow was in its infancy. It was primarily a warbird airshow and would bring in a number of special guests to attract visitors. In 2003, amongst the special guests were WW II German ace Gunther Rall and Charles “Chuck” Yeager. It was announced that Mr. Yeager would be signing autographs during the Sunday show. I got in line to wait for my turn to meet my childhood hero.
Up to this point, I had never met any of my person celebrity icons. I had mixed feelings about doing so. I was always afraid that I would make a fool of myself, fumbling for something to say or that the celebrity would be rude or different than I expected. My brush with Mr. Yeager confirmed my fears!
In short, Mr. Yeager was rude to me and his personality was not what I had hoped for in meeting my aviation icon. However, I believe that there is an explanation for his actions. While in line, the guy in front of me had a HUGE bag of items. He clearly was at the show for the autographs. As we drew closer to our turn, he started grabbing out his items. A photo, a couple magazine ads, a X-1 die cast plane, etc. Meanwhile, I was in awe seeing the legend in front of me smiling and speaking with the people in front of him. Fast forward a few minutes and I was next in line. I get my item to be signed ready, confirm my camera is working and anxiously wait my turn.
Then the trouble started. I was watching the guy that was in front of me at the table. He started talking to Mr. Yeager and pointing for him to sign this and that. Also do not sign here or put his hand there while signing. Finally, Mr. Yeager yelled at him “stop barking orders and this is the last thing I am signing for you!” The guy packed his items and Mr. Yeager’s assistant asked me to step up. Mr. Yeager was now visually upset.
I handed over my photo and Mr. Yeager asked my name to personalize the photo. “It is an honor to meet you Mr. Yeager” I said. “You are my childhood hero.” Mr. Yeager grunted as a response and personalized my photo. He shook my hand and brushed my photo to the side quickly to move onto the next person. I was terribly disappointed with the experience. Crap…that was not how I wanted my time to go with him. I was terribly disappointed. Excited, but disappointed.
After time has passed, my feelings have changed about the matter. Many of my aviation friends and colleagues have met Mr. Yeager and expressed their opinion about him. Some positive, some have been negative. I chose to think that the guy in front of me tarnished the experience. He upset Mr. Yeager with his demands and bossy demeanor. Mr. Yeager did not have time to “shake it off” and get back to his normal self. Like I mentioned, most of the people before me were treated friendly and given some time with him. I wish my interaction with him was different, but I consider myself fortunate to have had the experience.
Although my time with Mr. Yeager was brief, I accomplished my goal of meeting him and shook the man’s hand. I still believe him to be an icon of the modern aviation era, and he is still one of my heroes!