WINGS, BEYOND THE SPEED OF SOUND

March 12, 2003 12:00 am
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Pilot story by Marge Woodfin

Like the post office declaration that neither rain, sleet nor snow can keep the mail from being delivered, fishing and flying enthusiasts don't allow rainy weather to dampen their spirits.

Each spring when the Cal-Ore Fish Enhancement Steelhead Fishing Derby comes around, fishing and flying bring many well-known celebrities and sports figures to Southern Curry and Northern Del Norte counties, including retired Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager.

Dan Brattain, president of Cal-Ore Life Flight spearheads the fishing derby, a benefit for the Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery. He finds ways to use the presence of distinguished visitors to promote other worthwhile programs.

First and foremost for Gen. Yeager is the Young Eagles, a program sponsored by the Experimental Aviation Association (EAA) to promote interest in flight among young students, and the Gen. Yeager Foundation, which provides college scholarships for high school graduates each year.

This year, in addition to the usual programs, as a kickoff for the week's activities in the air and on the rivers, Cal-Ore Life Flight hosted a special dinner Wednesday evening at the Oceanview Drive residence of retired TWA Capt. Dave Homes.

Attendance at the dinner was limited to 40 invited guests, each of whom made a $100 donation to Gen. Yeager's Foundation. Following the dinner, specially prepared by retired French chef Roger Pernelli of Brookings, Oakland Raider Jim Otto, NFL Hall of Fame honoree, made a short presentation, followed by Gen. Yeager who then spoke and answered questions.

The inclement weather, which kept planes on the ground on Sunday, was no deterrent to the young people and their families who filled the huge hangar at Brookings Airport. They came to sign up as Young Eagles and hear Yeager tell tales of early flying, including when he flew fighter aircraft over Germany during World War II, and later as the first test pilot to break the sound barrier.

The approximately 90 newly-enrolled Young Eagles will fly later, when weather permits, with members of the Brookings and Crescent City flying clubs. All participating pilots are members of EAA and licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and will fly FAA-approved aircraft. The pilots and aircraft owners donate the rides.

Five young people were chosen by a drawing to fly with Yeager at Grass Valley, Calif., later. They are Jackson DeHaven, Mary Kraynak, Mack Bond, Holly Raymond, and Haley Fleshman.

Yeager is the honorary chairman of the Young Eagles and his goal is to fly the 1 millionth Young Eagle on Dec. 17, 2003, the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' historic first flight. The number of Young Eagles currently stands at approximately 900,000.

Although the income from the $5 general public donation for attendance at Yeager's Sunday presentation was originally to be shared by his foundation and the Brookings Flying Club, Yeager announced that all proceeds would go to the flying club. Brattain said $400 will be added to the fund for scholarships for Brookings-Harbor High School graduates.

According to Brattain, Wednesday's dinner, accompanied by a selection of wines, was completely underwritten by Cal-Ore. He said the $6,000 raised at the dinner will go to the Chuck Yeager Foundation.

Proceeds from an auction of two Yeager-autographed models of the Bell X1 airplane, the aircraft he flew faster than the speed of sound for the first time, and a 30-minute flight with Yeager, were added to the dinner donations.

Victoria D'Angelo, president of the foundation, said that last year the foundation provided $100,000 for educational programs, $50,000 to support the Young Eagles program and $50,000 for a scholarship program at Marshall University in West Virginia, Yeager's home state.

Lavonne and Barron Peterson, who made the high bid for the flight, were promised that if the weather kept them from flying Sunday, Brattain would fly them to Grass Valley to fly with Yeager when the weather allowed.

Victoria D'Angelo, president of Yeager's foundation, said its scholarship program provides four-year full scholarships to a dozen or more students each year, including a summer at Oxford. D'Angelo said 11 of the the current year's scholarship recipients were female.

Otto, who was unable to fish this year because of a scheduled knee-replacement, was on hand to participate in the fundraising activities, and introduced his young grandson at the dinner. Otto talked about heroes, one of his being Yeager.

Yeager, who signed up with the U.S. Army Air Corps just out of high school, said he was not eligible at the time to enter pilot's training, but he had a lot of mechanical experience from working with his father on oil rigs. That experience and natural talent made him invaluable in flight testing, when he was later accepted for flight training and eventually went into the flight-test program.

One statistic he shared from his fighter pilot combat experience over Germany is that 90 percent of the enemy planes that were shot down during combat, were hit by 11 percent of the pilots, and most of those ace pilots were from rural areas.

Gen. Yeager, who participated as a member of the board of inquiry into the Challenger disaster, also answered questions about his take on the latest tragic loss of the Columbia shuttle. His comments were not completely complimentary to the program.

When asked, during the question-and-answer time at the airport if he planned to attend the Reno air races this year, he responded with a resounding, "no." He explained that he only attended those air races once and didn't like seeing P-51s being torn up. He thought the attendees were mostly "wealthy egomaniacs."

He is definitely a man who speaks his mind with West Virginia wit, wisdom and honesty. One example is a statement about his experiences during World War II in getting out of Germany after being shot down.

"There's no German alive who can catch a West Virginia boy in the forest."

At 80 years of age, Yeager still flies on a weekly basis, and only last October flew an F-16, again breaking the sound barrier.

One of his quotes printed on the back of the menu presented to each guest at Wednesday's dinner provides insight into his character.

"You do what you can for as long as you can, and when you finally can't, you do the next best thing. You back up but you don't give up."