This story about Chuck Yeager the conservationist was originally published in Ducks Unlimited magazine in 1987 as part of a special issue commemorating the organization's 50th anniversary.


"Be aggressive." Whether in pursuit of California quail or pitching pintails, Chuck Yeager knows only one way to hunt.

By George Stanley

You're scheduled to meet in Yuba City, California, at 6 p.m. At 5:45, there's a rap at the motel door.

The man you'll hunt beside this weekend isn't known for arriving late.

As you open the door, he pulls his right hand from the pocket of a black windbreaker. "Chuck Yeager," he says in a voice that sounds deep for his 5'9" frame. He looks different from the smiling grandfather you've seen on book jackets and television commercials. For one thing, Yeager doesn't smile so much as he grinsthe off-center grin of a cocky young man. He walks like a young man, too, in blue jeans and cowboy boots, hands tucked in his jacket pockets.

You wouldn't want to be something that the General dislikes. The more you get to know him in the coming days, the more money you'd be willing to bet that Charles E. Yeager, at 63, could still outfly, outshoot, and outcuss any man foolish enough to challenge him.

"Be aggressive," he says. "That sort of sums up my whole lifestyle."

It might describe the style well enough, but it hardly sums up the life.


On the small side of average in physical stature, Yeager's status among men is intimidating. Many have compared his charisma with that of John Wayne, but Yeager fired bullets where Wayne shot blanks.

Still a teenager in World War II, Yeager shot down five German planes on a single mission, four on another. Shot down himself over Nazi-occupied France, he made his way toward neutral Spain with aid from the French underground, then ended up carrying a badly wounded American navigator over the Pyrenees Mountains to safety.

Once back in England, Yeager protested a mandatory return stateside so vehemently that his request to go back to battle was personally heard and approved by Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Later in 1944, Yeager attacked and destroyed a newly developed German jet fighter that could fly much faster than his propeller-driven P-51 Mustang. He still feels today that "a superior pilot will beat superior technology."

But match a pilot of Yeager's skill with top-flight technology and you've set the state for some legendary stuff.

Yeager's name became legend among pilots on October 14, 1947. Shortly after eight that morning, he cooly pushed the X-1 rocket plane past Mach 1, the speed of sound, vanquishing a "barrier" that many pilots and engineers thought would obliterate any flyer who ventured too near. A hunter since childhood, Yeager figured that if natural forces allowed a bullet to travel faster than sound, they would allow a bullet-shaped airplane to do it as well. Once Yeager brushed aside the sound barrier, manned space travel became a possibility rather than a dream.

Yeager remained the world's fastest human for most of the next decade, competing with other top research test pilots to set higher and higher speed records. Upon raising the record to Mach 2.4 in 1953, in a flight that nearly killed him, Yeager was described by Newsweek as "the man of the supersonic age. He is today's pioneer and tomorrow's legend."

For the most part, however, the legend of Chuck Yeager stayed confined within the fighter pilot fraternity until Tom Wolfe's 1979 bestseller, The Right Stuff. Though Yeager's story was told in one chapter, his presence dominated the book. He was, as Wolfe described, the top of the pyramid, the pilot other fighter jocks strove to emulate"the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff."

In the movie version of Wolfe's book, Sam Shepard portrayed Yeager. Barbara Hershey played his wife, Glennis. The movie paved the way for a 1985 autobiography that became a number-one bestseller. A film based on Yeager is in the works.

Even so, when Chuck crams into the cab of an old pickup with you and another 200-plus pounder, you realize that he's not likely to be featured soon on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." In fact, as you head to a get-together with the owners of the Red Ranch Duck Club where you'll hunt in the morning, Yeager talks as if he's still sweating to support a wife and four kids on lieutenant's wages.

"I religiously change my oil every 3,000 miles. Oil's cheap," he says, in an accent as thick as the woods outside Hamlin, West Virginiathe remote Appalachian mining town where he grew up the son of a gas driller. He talks as if there were no books or movies about his life, no television commercials, no speaking engagements at $20,000 a pop; as if he hadn't made it all the way to general, from private, in his 35-year Air Force career.

The changes, it appears, haven't changed him.

You pull up to the house trailer that serves as Bob Petersen's hunting headquarters. Yeager hops out, introduces himself to Petersen, then grabs a handle on a crateload of Dungeness crabs and helps carry it inside.

The trailer is full of duck hunters with their wives and adult children. Chuck shakes hands, smiles at cameras, and tells jokes. He finds it highly amusing when Herb Jensen, who flew bombers over Germany in World War II, tosses a crab shell towards a trash bag and lands it shortsmack in a dish of seafood sauce. "No wonder you guys were dropping bombs on friendlies over there," Yeager says.

He calls everyone by their first names and expects them to do the same. He's quite good at remembering names of persons he's just met. "Only common ones," he'll say later. "I can pick up the common ones. If it's an uncommon name, I won't even try. I have a limited mental capacity and I've gotten to the point where if it's not something that affects my longevity, I don't much give a damn."

Moderation in drinking and a good night's rest, he's decided, are longevity enhancing. Two beers and 10 p.m. are enough.

Back at the motel, you say goodnight and head to your rooms. "I'll be out here at 5:15," Yeager says. "Standing at attention."



The plates on Yeager's Chevy Blazer read "Bell X-1." An open pack of chewing gum lies by the stickBeemans, the same brand he ritually borrowed from flight engineer Jack Ridley in the movie "The Right Stuff."


"They still make it in Canada," Chuck says, offering a stick.


Out at the marshes, in the dark of predawn, you split up in teams, then head for the blinds. Yeager wades toward a pit with Jensen, a Sacramento attorney.


"How do you tell a lawyer from a rattlesnake?" Chuck asks.


"How?" Jensen grumbles.


"Lay them end-to-end on a highway. When you come back, the rattlesnake will have skid marks in front of it."


Despite the low clouds and haze, it's light enough at legal time for Jensen and Yeager to begin filling their limits.


Yeager's eyesight is still 20/10, same as in the mid-forties, when he could spot German war planes at distances of 50 miles and more. He has no problem sighting in the ducks but appreciates help in identifying them on the wing. "I've always been more of a quail hunter than a duck hunter," he says.


Flocks of pintails skim through the sky with the grace of rowing crews gliding across calm waters. Now and again, in the distance, a large flock funnels slowly down to a rice field like a swarm of honeybees returning to a hive.


But it is mostly small clusters of mallards and wigeon that answer Jensen's call and circle within range.


Yeager hasn't fired his Model 12 in 30 years, since he gave it to his oldest son, Donald. He borrowed back the weathered Winchester specifically for this duck hunting trip after he and his son successfully bagged elk with muzzleloaders near Donald's Colorado home.


Chasing fast-flying valley quail has kept Chuck's bird's eye sharp. He and Jensen waste just three shells between them in collecting two five-duck limits before 9 a.m.


"In the military, we were never really privileged to the luxury that sportsmen have," Chuck says after a plucking party outside the club trailer. "You'd just grab a gun and walk up the side of a mountain. That was hunting."


Over the years, Yeager has managed to hunt and fish on many mountains: from the Appalachians of his boyhood to the German Alps to the California Sierras to the Himalayas of Pakistan to the Alaskan Rockies.


Yet he has never before hunted ducks in the foggy bottomlands of California's Central Valleywaterfowl mecca of the Pacific Flywaythough he lives only 40 minutes' drive up the road. Most of the valley's prime waterfowling areas are leased or owned by private clubs.


"Basically, I hunt on public lands," Chuck says. "Hell, it's good hunting. But the reason I'm successful is I work damn hard at it. I don't hunt along the roads; I go up the side of the mountainthat's where the game is."


Chuck gets together with family and friends in several states every year to pursue elk, deer, turkey, geese and quail. He still backpacks into the High Sierras after golden trout each summer, hiking an average of 13 to 15 miles per day.


But he says his richest outdoor experiences came during the mid-fifties, while serving as a squadron commander in West Germany. "The best hunting in the world, by far, is in Germany," he says. "They've been hunting there for 2,000 years and their hunting is as good now as it ever was."


Tremendously impressed by the German system of game management, Yeager immersed himself in "beautiful hunting traditions that have been passed down over hundreds over years." In time, he became one of few foreigners allowed to lead a German driven shoot as a "Jgermeister."


"In its original spelling, Yeager is spelled Jger, and means hunter," Chuck says. "The jgers have great respect for their animals."


An array of game is taken during the German winter drives, he explainsdeer, boar, rabbit, pheasant. Afterwards, the game is laid out in the snow, according to rank, with the big stags coming first, then the roebucks and so on. An evergreen twig in the shape of a cross is placed by the mouth of each animal as a "last bite" offering in honor of St. Hubertus, the patron of hunters. (Hubertus, it is said, passed up a shot at a great stag and dedicated his life to Christ after seeing a flaming cross appear between the animal's antlers.) After the last bite, the jgers lift their horns in a final call to the forest.


"It's a beautiful thing," Chuck says. "I fell in love with it."


He returned from Germany with an awakened appreciation for wildlife conservation in his own country. "We're heading toward the same kind of system, eventually," Yeager says, unwittingly echoing a piece of graduate school research recently completed at the University of Iowa. In her 1985 master's thesis, "Built on Honor to Endure," Sharon Kaufman traced the profound "land ethic" of Aldo Leopold and his childrenthe first family of American wildlife managementto their inheritance as descendants of German hunters.


"We're still a very young country," Chuck says. "But I hunt in a lot of states and every one of them has a good game management program. With the work that's being done by the state agencies and by organizations like Ducks Unlimited, our wildlife will still be here hundreds of years down the road."




It's drizzling outside Chuck's Blazer. You've just finished lunch and are awaiting the hunters you'll shoot quail with this afternoon.


"Quail hunting is how I get my exercise," Chuck says. He happened to be chasing quail in the foothills near his house the previous morning when he fell and skinned his face. He brushes a hand over the cut above his eyebrow. "I should've got some stitches," he says. "But it'll heal."


Yeager is intimately familiar with his body's healing powers.


He fractured his back in 1943 while bailing out of a burning plane during flight training. Just five months later, he jumped into enemy territory from another disintegrating plane, a gash on his forehead and flak in his hands, legs and feet.


Two freshly broken ribs from a fall off a horse would surely have prevented him from flying the X-1 faster than sound on that fateful fall morning of 40 years ago had he not succeeded in concealing the injury from his superiors.


A helicopter crash during a 1950s fishing trip tore open his scalp in five places; it took 138 stitches to close the wounds.


Yet even those cuts seemed like scratches compared with the injuries he suffered in 1963 after the rocket plane he was piloting skidded out of control at a sub-space altitude of 104,000 feet.


Yeager ejected for the third and final time in his Air Force career, but as his parachute lines streamed out, the ejector seat became tangled in them, its rocket still burning. The chute opened and yanked Yeager up. At the same time, the seat was jarred loose and fell down. It crashed through his faceplate and stuck there, engulfing his head in flame and smoke. Frying and suffocating, Yeager tried to scoop air into his helmet with a gloved hand; the glove caught fire as well.


He hit the ground and managed to wrestle the helmet and burning glove off. Hunks of two fingers fell off with the glove. Second and third degree burns covered his face.


To save Yeager from horrible disfigurement, a flight surgeon scraped the scabs off his healing face every four days for more than a month. The face healed fine. But scar tissue replaced the skin on his neck, and his hands are severely wrinkled. His two shortened fingers still function; they look normal at even a short distance.


"As long as you walk awaythat's what counts," Yeager says, shrugging.


But many of his closest friends didn't walk away during the gory glory days of flight testing at Edwards Air Force Base. "Most of the guys from my time are dead," he says.


The ones who managed to survive generally left the service as young men for safer, more lucrative careers. A pilot of Yeager's unmatched skill could have made tremendous money under far less strenuous conditions by flying for private industry.


But he remained in the Air Force until 1975, when he was forced by law to retire after 35 years of active military duty. In the forties and fifties, then the father or four young children, he risked his life day after day for meager military wages. In the sixties, he served as wing commander of five fighter-bomber squadrons in Vietnam and often flew on the missions himself.




His autobiography suggests it was for the sheer love and excitement of flying. That passion would explain why he continues piloting the Air Force's hottest jets, for no pay, 12 years after his "retirement."


A 1955 biography of Yeager, Across the High Frontier, suggests that he was driven by both his love of flying and his desire to do his best at the only job he knew.


The Right Stuff suggests that Yeager's life as an Air Force test pilot was fueled by pride and a fiercely competitive warrior spirit.


But Yeager is a more thoughtful, serious person than you would expect after reading the books. You sense there's something more to the answer, to his willingness to accept whatever challenge the Air Force offered him.


You ask him if he still experiences nightmares of fire in the cockpitterrifying dreams that left him clawing at the bedroom windows during the X-1 project.


He shakes his head. "I was tired then," he says, his voice subdued. "We'd had three fires in three flights, and you start to think, 'Something's going to happen with this thing.' Besides, the X-1 wasn't all that I was flying. There were other experimental planes that we didn't have time to get to know. Guys were dying; there weren't enough test pilots; we were putting in 18-hour days."


The nightmares robbed him of badly needed rest. "Finally, I said, 'Hey, you might get clobbered. There's nothing you can do about it.' It's like waryou have to block it out. And with the mental discipline I have, that was it. I haven't had the dreams since."


Talking freely now, the old fighter pilot reveals himself as a person with strong opinions, solid convictions and a singular dedication to duty.


Sense of duty to country put Yeager in an airplane over Europe when America needed combat pilots. That same sense of duty kept him rocketing over the California desert when America needed research test pilots. Who else could push those planes to their limits and survive?


Even in surviving there was dutyto his family. He studied his jets until he knew every potentially important detail about their mechanical, electrical, and emergency systems. He packed his own ejector-seat charges. He quit test flying the day he thought the odds were catching up to him.


But he stayed in the Air Force to train younger pilots. Then he led them into battle in Vietnam. "I think most of the guys that went to Vietnam are proudnot because of the war but because they did what their country asked them to do," he says. "The soldiers should not have been criticized. Soldiers never fight where they want to. They fight where their country needs them."


Yeager plainly states his disgust for those he feels have shirked their responsibility. "When you're raised in the military, with such a strong sense of duty, it really makes you mad, really disappoints you, to see politicians putting their party or themselves ahead of their country," he says.


As examples, Yeager points to congressional criticism of the Grenada invasion and the bombing of Tripoli. "Congress doesn't have a sense of duty," he says. "The media doesn't have it."


Yeagerthe ice manis working up a head of steam. He's ready to stop talking and start walking.


But first he must endure a guided tour of the 4,500-acre Saddleback Ranch from host Wen Moe.




A one-time catcher for the New York Yankees, whose baseball career was shortened by injury, Wen Moe, 56, can talk as fast as Chuck Yeager can fly. He's as excitable as Yeager is steadyarms flying this way, then that, as he points out one fantastic piece of scenery after another. Wen's frantic, gesturing ways amaze the General.


"Will you just let us get out and walk?" Yeager keeps asking, as Moe drives from one quail cover to the next, chattering away, hoping to flush birds so they can be tracked down. Finally, Wen stops and grants the quail hunters their freedom. They hike around a large hill that overlooks a vast marsh network teeming with ducks.


They find no coveys but do get to watch a pair of bald eagles soar at tree-top height down a narrow valley between two hills.


Back at the lodge, Wen makes no excuses. "I'm not a quail guru, I'm a duck guru," he says. "You'll see what I mean in the morning."


An hour before dawn, over a cup of coffee, Chuck tells Wen about the wood ducks that hatch each spring on his 1-acre pond. Moments later, Wen is overheard telling someone else about the General's three-acre duck pond.


Those who know Moe well say that you should cut any number quoted by him in half if you want something resembling the truth. Except for duck numbers, they say. Those you should double.


Wen probably prefers to underestimate his duck populations because he has been accused more than once of stockpiling most of the birds in the Pacific Flyway on his prime wintering wetlands. This morning, he tells you, the ranch is holding about 500,000 ducks.


Knowing you can't possibly count them, you take his word for it.


You head out to a pit blind on one of Moe's marshes, then wait with him and Yeager for legal time. A pair of pintails zips past as it arrives. "Shoot!" Wen says. Chuck spins for a difficult over-the-shoulder shot at the birds going away.


He looks amused by this initial miss.


From that point on, whenever he raises his barrel, you hear one shot, a brief pause, a nearby splash. Though he has plenty of opportunities, Chuck never tries for a double. "I'm used to hunting quail without a dog," he says. "I shoot, then go right out to get the bird."


Wen checks out of the blind early and sends over DU Regional Director Steve Schultz to fill his vacancy. While Steve gets settled, Yeager pops a pintail drake and hops out of the blind to retrieve it.


As Chuck heads back toward the blind with his bird, Schultz topples another pintail. Yeager fetches that bird as well.


Schultz beams. "This is the first time I've ever had a general for a retriever," he says.


By 8:30 a.m., the blind has produced four five-duck limits. It is one of those rare days when the hunters spend far more time plucking and cleaning the birds than they did collecting them.


After the plucking party, the hunters at the club sit down to a Sunday luncheon. As the men eat, they chat about the business of the upcoming week. Club co-owner Ned Spieker asks the retired fella what he'll be up to.


Yeager says he'll be setting a new distance-speed record on Wednesday in honor of the 83rd anniversary of man's first powered flight. The most celebrated pilot since Orville Wright says he'll fly a Piper Cheyenne 400"the hotrod of turboprops"from Edwards Air Base in California to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.


"We're going to average 449 miles per hour," he says.


Lunch ends and the weekend fun is over. The hunters shake hands and head their separate ways.


Four days later, you're passing by a newsstand when you spot a photo of a hunting buddy on the front page of USA Today. The story is headlined: "The Wright's Stuff: Yeager Sets Record Flying to Kitty Hawk." It reports that General Chuck Yeager flew 2,361 miles in five hours, 15 minutes and 11 seconds.


His average speed, the article said, was 449 miles per hour.


Yeager was quoted as calling the flight "a piece of cake."


Yep, you think, smiling to yourself. That's Chuck.