It’s not every day that you get rejected by a national hero.
In 2015, as I was preparing the contents of a speech that I was to give to the cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy alongside leadership guru Simon Sinek, I remember seeing something about one of my childhood heroes, Chuck Yeager, in the news.
Yeager, the news said, was generous with his time and often spoke at events.
I then had an incredible thought: I wonder if General Yeager would consider calling in by video in the middle of my speech with some encouraging words to the cadets?
Imagine it; I’m giving a motivational speech to the cadets at the academy’s National Character and Leadership Symposium and suddenly famed test pilot Chuck Yeager fills the screen with some timeless wisdom for these future leaders.
So, I reached out to General Yeager and, unfortunately, his schedule was packed. He thanked me for the offer and politely declined, and I was never so happy to be rejected by a true American hero.
Yeager’s career began in World War II as a private in the United States Army Air Forces. After entering enlisted flight training, Yeager rose quickly through the ranks. On October 12, 1944, he became the first pilot in his group to make “ace in a day,” downing five enemy aircraft in a single mission.
In fact, two of those kills were scored without firing a single shot: When he flew into firing position against a Messerschmitt Bf 109, the German pilot panicked, breaking off to starboard and colliding with his wingman. Yeager said both pilots bailed out.
After the war, Yeager remained in the Air Force. As a captain, he became a test pilot at Muroc Army Air Field (now Edwards Air Force Base) in California.
But Yeager is perhaps best known for breaking the sound barrier on October 14, 1947, flying the X-1 Glamorous Glennis at Mach 1.05 at an altitude of 45,000 feet.
The X-1 he flew that day was later put on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.
The 1979 publication of Tom Wolfe’s bestseller The Right Stuff made Yeager an international celebrity. The 1983 motion picture based on the book, with actor Sam Shepard as Yeager, further solidified his hold on the public imagination.
Until this year, Yeager remained in high demand for public appearances. In 2012, he led the “Speed of Sound Tour” of Kabul and Bagram bases in Afghanistan, meeting with the troops and “reinforcing their sense of duty with stories from his lifetime of leadership and accomplishment.”
Yeager was an active Twitter user posting at least once a day. In a recent happy birthday message that asked him if he remembered what first inspired him to fly, he responded, “The pilots had clean fingernails & pretty girls on their arms.”
Rest in peace, General Chuck Yeager. May you continue to inspire the next generation of record-breakers.