The bridge is known as the South Side Bridge in downtown Charleston, West Virginia. Chuck Yeager, the man who broke the sound barrier and who personified “the right stuff” in the movie of the same name, flew under this bridge at 500 miles per hour in a Lockheed P-80 jet in 1948.
Local radio station WCHS re-aired an interview with Yeager from 2002 in which he recounted the legendary flight. He had come home to West Virginia to visit his parents in the little town of Hamlin. He took off from the airport that now bears his name and buzzed the state capitol as he admired the masterpiece of architect Cass Gilbert from a vantage point that few will ever know. The capitol sits on the Kanawha River and it was only natural that he would follow the beautiful river from the air. And then he saw the bridge. At 500 miles an hour, it would have taken him less than 10 seconds to reach the bridge from the capitol. He could have pulled up. But why? He went under the bridge.
Then he saw people jumping off their boats to get out of the way. He pulled up and flew back to Dayton.
In his book, Hillbilly Elegy (which I haven’t read) J.D. Vance tells how he clawed his way out of Appalachia and his own unique family struggles, and eventually made it to Yale Law School and a better life.
Chuck Yeager tells a different story.
He was one of 19 guys in his graduating class at Hamlin High School. All 19 signed up for military service. Yeager, of course, joined the Air Force. Or so you might imagine. Surely he was fascinated with flying and saw the Air Force as his way to see the world. Actually, there was no such thing as the Air Force in his day. He joined the Army. Flying wasn’t even on his radar.
He describes his path to becoming a pilot as dumb luck and being in the right place at the right time. He first became a mechanic in the army. On his first plane ride, he threw up. But eventually he got in the cockpit and discovered that he had extraordinary eyesight and superb hand-eye coordination. Not to mention his cool demeanor. The right stuff, as author Tom Wolfe would say. The rest is – well, watch the movie if you haven’t seen it.
The way to success? Conventional wisdom suggests hard work, grit, and determination. Which is no doubt true for many people. But then again, sometimes it’s just dumb luck. Or divine providence, if you prefer.
And sometimes it’s hard to explain when things don’t work out for those who do all the right things without success. Sometimes it’s not being in the right place at the right time. There are no guarantees of anything.
At the end of the interview, Chris Lawrence asked Yeager, who was then 79, how he wanted to be remembered when he “finally augered into the the earth.” Yeager’s response – and I paraphrase – “I don’t give a damn. People are going to think what they think.” He genuinely didn’t care.
Yeager, who had every reason to be full of himself, showed us what the right stuff really is:
Confidence and humility.