Thursday, December 06, 2012

Chuck Yeager, still soaring at 89

GRASS VALLEY, Calif. -- In the parking lot of this small Sierra Nevada town's airfield, a decommissioned F-104 Starfighter jet looms over a series of plaques. They honor the exploits of one Charles Elwood Yeager, better known as Chuck.

But while the display has a posthumous vibe, the local legend in question is very much alive and well, sitting in his hanger a few yards up the road.

"I'll be 90 in February, and while I'm not gonna run no marathon I still hunt and fish and fly," says Yeager, resting in the shade of a tail-dragger prop plane that he solos in regularly. Parked nearby is an old pickup whose plate reads BELL X1, the rocket plane he rode into history when it broke the sound barrier in 1947.

Living legend is an overused term, but it applies to this American original indelibly captured by Sam Shepard in 1983's The Right Stuff. Not that Yeager is remotely Hollywood. For him, life boils down to "duty, it's that simple."

The General, as he prefers to be called, doesn't particularly enjoy interviews; navel-gazing isn't his style. But he agreed to speak with USA TODAY to draw attention to the foundation that bears his name, which supports a scholarship program at Marshall University in his native West Virginia as well as the Young Eagles, a non-profit program chaired by pilot Sully Sullenberger that gets kids airborne (Yeager is Eagles' chairman emeritus).

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