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Chuck Yeager going strong
Legendary pilot celebrates 85th birthday at Beale
Chuck Yeager first came to Beale Air Force Base in 1943, when it was an Army installation called Camp Beale.
Stationed at the Oroville Army Air Field at the time, he came to Beale for training, which he described as "crawling under barbed wire while they was shooting bullets over our heads out of a machine gun."
"What the hell good that does for a fighter pilot, I don't know, but that's the way the military is," Yeager said to laughs Wednesday at a podium in Heritage Park at what is now Beale Air Force Base.
The legendary pilot's latest trip to Beale ditched barbed wire and bullets for accolades and tributes as friends, family and airmen celebrated Yeager's 85th birthday.
Yeager was an accomplished fighter pilot during World War II, shooting down 13 enemy aircraft over France and Germany between 1943 and 1945, including five planes in one mission.
But the West Virginia native achieved fame among the general public during his time as a test pilot, becoming the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound in the experimental Bell X-1 aircraft in 1947.
Among some of the more famous in attendance at the birthday celebration, according to Beale's public affairs office, were billionaire hotelier Barron Hilton, race car driver and automotive designer Carroll Shelby and country musician Roy Clark.
"I've had a hell of a birthday party," Yeager said with a still-present Appalachian twang during a wind-blown ceremony with a SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance plane behind him.
Most of the events at the base were held in private. But Yeager and guests came out into the wind to hear the retired brigadier general, who lives just east of Beale, in Penn Valley, give a short talk on the SR-71 and his career.
Yeager, who retired from the Air Force in 1975 but continued to fly, said he has been piloting Air Force planes for 65 years and last flew a Blackbird 25 years ago. He still recalls the top speed he reached in it — Mach 3.26 at an altitude of 76,000 feet. (Mach 1 is equal to the speed of sound.)
"You could go higher with the airplane, but your Mach dropped off," he said. "And you come lower, and your Mach dropped off."
Col. Keith Gentile, vice commander of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, read a letter congratulating Yeager from Gen. John Corley, commander of the Air Force's Air Combat Command.
"Throughout your career as an ace fighter pilot and world-renowned test pilot, you displayed an unmatched commitment to your core values of service and excellence," Corley wrote. "Your heroic actions and legendary accomplishments continue to influence new generations of airmen and shape today's Air Force."
But for the memories and accolades of the past, Yeager is still going strong today, giving one-liner jokes to members of the press with that twang in his voice.
"I don't know," he said when asked how he made it to 85 years old. "I'm afraid to find out."
Contact Appeal reporter Robert LaHue at 749-4713 or email@example.com