60th Anniversary of Chuck Yeager’s Near-fatal Crash

Commemorated with My Portrait of a Super-sonic-hero

Tom Zimberoff

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20 years after the crash: Gen. Chuck Yeager, USAF Retired / ©1983 Tom Zimberoff

My sister Carla’s late husband, Chuck Berman, a generation older than me, was a World War II Army Air Force veteran, a young bombardier in a B-17 Flying Fortress who earned a Purple Heart dodging Zeros over the Pacific. After the war, then college, he got a job as an engineer at North American Aviation, the company that built the P-51 Mustang fighter plane flown by American aces like Chuck Yeager to escort those big bombers through fearsome skies.

North American also built the X-15 in the postwar era — X for experimental flight — under the aegis of the Air Force and NASA. It was the first aircraft to breach the exosphere at the cusp of outer space. When I was eleven, my big brother-in-law brought me some autographed 8x10 glossies of test pilots who flew the X-15, including Scott Crossfield, Joe Walker, and Neil Armstrong. Yeager didn’t fly that bird, but he pioneered the X-plane program and, with the X-1, became the first pilot — the first anything alive — to travel faster than sound.

As a kid, I worshiped those guys. Still do. But I never did get a Chuck Yeager fan photo. Having grown up to be a photojournalist, the chance came to create one for myself.

Because clients sometimes assigned me to shoot photo stories about the military, it was good business to stay in touch with the public affairs officers who represented each branch of the armed forces. On a visit to the joint P.A.O. in Los Angeles, I struck up a conversation with Army Lt. Col. Jim Channon about The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s 1979 best-seller chronicling the epic story of NASA’s first astronauts, the Mercury Seven. It included a hagiographic salute to Yeager, the paragon of America’s military test pilots. Actor Sam Shepard portrayed him in a 1983 movie adaptation in wide release then and top of mind. (It would win four Oscars the following year.) I mused out loud about how cool it would be to meet this living legend — even better to photograph him. It was just a conversational aside. But my Army interlocutor pushed a Rolodex across his desk, like shoving a stack of poker chips into a high-stakes pot. “Call him,” he said.

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