Washington D.C. Tuesday October 9, 2001
I was fortunate enough to be able to take a vacation with my wife Debbie to Washington D.C. in 2001. This was just after the terrible events of September 11 and at the time; much of what we had planned was in some doubt. However fortunes prevailed and we had a wonderful time in the Washington D.C. Earlier in the day, I managed to purchase the last “Desk-top model” of the X-1 at the NASM shop. I’d like to thank the staff of the museum shop for their friendly and helpful manner and the superb packing job they did on the model which allowed it to get home with me to Scotland in one piece.
A big thank you goes out to Cindy Siegfried, who was General Yeager's personal assistant for over 16 years. Cindy managed to obtain for us VIP front row seating for General Chuck Yeager’s annual lecture, which is part of the “General Electric Series”. The lecture was held in the Langley IMAX theatre inside the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air & Space Museum. Vice President of the NASM Don Lopez was introducing Chuck to the audience and during the introduction, I stole a peek to my left and sitting just 4 seats away from me was Chuck Yeager.
When Chuck came onto podium to begin his talk, I could hardly believe that this great legend of aviation was only 4 feet away from me. Our seats were front-row center and therefore we could not have asked for a better vantagepoint.
Chuck talked about his career from fighting during WW2, being selected to fly the worlds first supersonic aircraft; the Bell X-1. During the talk, Chuck went on at length to describe the intricacies of the Nitrogen pressurized gas system of the X-1, to listen to a man of 78 years of age describe all the pressures he was relying on to be in the right place at the right time gave one a feeling that here in front of us was God’s own test pilot. Yeager made light of all the dangers that surrounded the X-1 program, often sending the audience into fits of laughter at what had happened at the time of the program.
Near the end of the talk, members of the audience were permitted to ask General Yeager questions about his career. One fellow asked “General, do you still perform the act of a tree surgeon? Because I could use one right now”. Chuck replied “Where’d you hear about that? Back in the days when we were undergoing squadron training, I had got friendly with a Joe & Ma Clifford who had a ranch near Tonopah. Joe had told me that he’d like to get rid of a tree that stood near the roadway to their house. The next day, I umm, kinda buzzed that tree in my P-39 and took the top clean off! When I landed, the Sergeant in charge of maintenance said to me, “What the hell happened there Yeager?” I replied “I hit a bird” he said to me “Well, that son of a bitch must’ve been sitting in one helluva high nest “. So I got grounded from flying the P-39 for a week, but I was lucky I didn’t get court marshaled.”
I myself asked General Yeager what was going through his mind the day he took the tumble in the Bell X-1A you can hear the actual audio footage from that flight and read the transcript. Chuck went on to explain about the problems Bell had been having with their own test pilot that had thought that the ship was unstable. The pilot, Jean “Skip” Ziegler had not even taken the X-1A through Mach 1 he was so worried by the shockwaves he could see forming on the wings. Chuck took about 15 minutes or so to answer my question, he went into so much detail that I and the audience were in a state of awe. If you have never listened to the audio from that flight, I strongly urge you to do so as it is one of the most impressive recoveries you are ever likely to hear. All the time during Chuck’s explanation, he was looking right at me, and that memory will be with me forever.
After the talk, the audience went down into the museum’s lobby for the usual ceremony of Chuck signing items that the audience had brought along. I had thought I would be lucky if I could just meet Chuck, shake his hand and have a photograph taken. How wrong I was! General Yeager’s assistant Victoria beckoned me over to the autograph table. I got introduced to Chuck and we started to chat, him asking me how we were enjoying D.C., when did we get into town etc. Just regular chitchat. Victoria asked me if I would like to hand out information flyers to the people who were queuing to have their item (Chuck would only sign one item per person) signed. I gladly accepted and for the next hour and more, I was Chuck Yeager’s wingman, flying shotgun on his right hand side. The experience was completely awesome and very surreal, I could not believe what was happening, it was all happening so fast that I did not think I had neglected my wife for that length of time. Debbie, my wife took some photographs of Chuck & I, which you can see to the left, most of which were snapped while we were at the autograph table. In one of the shots, you can see Chuck explaining to me about the wing tanks on his P-51 – he went on to tell me that this model was accurately displaying the 117 gallon tanks as some models just have the 85 gallon tanks.
I'd like to thank General Yeager's former secretary and my dear friend Cindy Siegfried for organising the tickets and front row seating for me. Cindy originally organised seating for Major General Fred J. Ascani (who is another dear friend) and his family. General Ascani was originally to have be seated right next to me and my wife, sadly General Ascani could not attend. Meeting General Yeager was such a wonderful experience and one which I shall never forget. I'd also like to thank Victoria D'Angelo for introducing me to General Yeager who was most generous with his time and attention to me. It was quite simply the best night of my life. No-one could have been nicer or more kind to me. General Yeager signed a $20 bill for me and also presented me with a signed and personalised photograph of himself with the Northrop B-2. I'd like to thank General Yeager, Cindy Siegfried and Victoria D'Angelo for the wonderful experience that they provided me with that evening. It was quite simply the best night of my life. No-one could have been nicer or more kind to me. General Yeager signed a $20 bill for me and also presented me with a signed and personalised photograph of himself with the Northrop B-2.
The following day I revisited the museum and underneath the Bell X-1, I met up with former Bell Aircraft design worker Stanley C. Tracz. Stan was responsible for the aileron system on the X-1 and reported to Mark Morkovan. I am so grateful to Stan for taking the time and trouble to come to Washington D.C. especially to meet with me. We had a wonderful time in the museum, a great lunch in "America" in Union Station and also took a trolley-bus tour of DC. It was fantastic to experience Washington DC and the National Air and Space Museum in such a way... A trip my wife and I will never forget!!