Legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager, Kern County hero, never lost that exuberance

Local News

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Any list of authentic American heroes with Kern County connections has to include his name: Chuck Yeager, the test pilot who broke the sound barrier in the skies over East Kern 73 years ago.

Yeager died Monday at age 97.

On Tuesday, friends and admirers remembered him as the original man with “the Right Stuff.”

Yeager grew up in West Virginia and spent most of his retirement years in Northern California, but he was ours — a Kern County legend by virtue of one very memorable jet-plane flight over the Mojave Desert.

The year was 1947, and the Air Force wanted to push the bounds of human and technological capability and exceed the sound barrier — 767 miles per hour.

In a scene from the acclaimed 1983 film “The Right Stuff” — with Sam Shepard portraying Yeager — Air Force brass approaches Yeager — a World War II fighting ace — about the air-speed challenge.

If the actual air speed record didn’t make Yeager a household name, Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book — and the film that followed — did.

Kern County embraced him — not just because of his accomplishments as a test pilot — a job that, if things didn’t go well, got you an East Kern street named in your honor. It was also his demeanor, his quiet calm, his humble confidence.

Stu Witt, former CEO of the Mojave Air and Space Port and a Top Gun pilot himself, knew Yeager and well understood the mindset of a test pilot.

Kern County Supervisor Mick Gleason, a pilot himself and former commanding officer of the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in east Kern County, says Yeager was a walking, talking testimony to the joys of flying for one’s country.

Witt says that for all of Yeager’s grit, sophistication and expertise as a test pilot, he retained a youthful awe that served him well, served Witt too, and serves all who venture out into the wild blue yonder: The exuberance, the innocent fascination, the joy — of a sixth grader.

At least in this one specific aspect of their character — may they never grow up.

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