Personality Theories in Chuck Yeager’s Life
General Yeager was born in 1923, in Myra, W.Va., and is a graduate of Hamlin, W.Va., High School. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps in September of 1941, and was then accepted for pilot training under the flying sergeant program in July of 1942. Yeager received his pilot wings and appointment as a flight officer in March of 1943 at Luke Field in Arizona
During World War II, General Yeager distinguished himself in aerial combat over France and Germany during the years 1943-1945 by shooting down 13 German aircraft. In fact, he shot down five on one mission, including one of Germany’s first jet fighters. On March 5, 1944, he was shot down over German-occupied France but escaped capture when friendly factions of the French Maquis helped him to reach the safety of the Spanish border.
He returned to the United States in February 1945 to attend the instructor pilot course in the United States Air Force after which he served as an instructor pilot. In July 1945 he went to Wright Field, Ohio, where he received his first experimental flight test work. His assignment there led to his selection as pilot of the nation’s first research rocket aircraft, the Bell X-1, at Edwards Air Force Base in California where he served from December 1949 to September 1954.
General Yeager famously made world history on Oct. 14, 1947, when he became the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound. This happened during his nine-year assignment as the nation’s leading test pilot. He also became the first man to fly more than twice the speed of sound (Mach 2), flying the Bell X-lA on Dec. 12, 1953.
During 1952 he attended the Air Command and Staff College. He returned to Europe in October 1954 and became commander of the 417th Fighter Squadron at Hahn Air Base, Germany, in May 1955. He remained in that position when his squadron was reassigned to Toul-Rosieres Air Base, France, in April of 1956.
Upon his return to the America in September of 1957, he was assigned to the 413th Fighter Wing at George Air Force Base in California, and in April 1958 became commander of the 1st Fighter Squadron. In April 1958 he went with the 1st Tactical Fighter Squadron to Moron Air Base, Spain, where he remained until November 1958. He returned to George Air Force Base with the same unit which was later redesignated as the 306th Tactical Fighter Squadron.
General Yeager graduated from the Air War College, Maxwell Air Force Base in Alababma in June of 1961 and later became the commandant of the Aerospace Research Pilot School, where all military astronauts are trained, in July of 1962.
In July 1966 he assumed command of the 405th Fighter Wing at Clark Air Base, in the Republic of the Philippines. While commander of the 405th Fighter Wing he flew 127 missions in South Vietnam.
General Yeager assumed command of the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina in February 1968 and went with the wing to Korea during the Pueblo crisis. In July 1969 he became vice commander, Seventeenth Air Force, with headquarters at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. In January 1971 General Yeager assumed duties as United States defense representative to Pakistan. He reported to the Air Force Inspection and Safety Center at Norton Air Force Base in California in March of 1973 and became director of the center in June 1973.
His military decorations and awards include the Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star with oak leaf cluster, Legion of Merit with oak leaf cluster, Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters, Bronze Star Medal with “V” device, Air Medal with 10 oak leaf clusters, Air Force Commendation Medal, Purple Heart, Distinguished Unit Citation Emblem with oak leaf cluster and the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award Ribbon, He is a command pilot and has flown in total more than 10,000 hours in 155 different types of military aircraft.
Yeager as a Self-Actualizer
Yeager’s most pervasive personality trait is that of a self-actualizer. Self-actualizers, according to Dr. Abraham Maslow, are described as follows: “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be. This is the need we may call self-actualization … It refers to man’s desire for fulfillment, namely to the tendency for him to become actually in what he is potentially: to become everything that one is capable of becoming…”
One of the critical aspects of a self-actualizer is that he or she is realistic. Self-actualizers have a very efficient perception of reality, and have comfortable relations with it. They are unthreatened and unfrightened by the unknown.
These criteria describe Yeager to a ‘T.’ Take, for instance, his famed dogfight of around 16 American planes with perhaps close to 200 German fighters in World War II. From the definitive Yeager biography, his autobiography, here are the lines: “Andy and I were the first to see them coming; at fifty miles or more, they were a dark cloud moving towards us. ‘God almighty, there must be a hundred and fifty of them,’ Andy exclaimed. We couldn’t believe our luck.”
The fighters, described in dark cloud, were the quintessential unknown. Yet, Yeager, as a true self-actualizer, had no fear. In fact, he thanked his luck for putting him in the situation.
Yeager, throughout his career, attacked boundaries that had never been attacked before. He continually pushed his own envelope. He broke the sound barrier, famously, but also was the first to shoot down a jet plane. Yeager made a career out of moving from base to base, from task to task, from war to war, seeking out the unknown and tackling it. A psychoanalyst could easily argue that the prospect of battling the unknown was actually Yeager’s prime motivating factor.
Self-actualizers also exhibit spontaneity, simplicity and naturalness. Their thoughts and processes are uninhibited by convention, and they are motivated to continued growth. Yeager fits this bill as well. Rather than follow flight plans and orders, he let his instincts do the thinking, as in this following sequence:
“I climbed to 35,000 feet and saw three small specs way off and slightly higher. I still had plenty of fuel and ammo, and I just began to turn towards those specs, when I heard a familiar voice: “Bogie down south.” Only one pair of eyes could have spotted me the moment I began my turn. “Andy,” I asked, “is that you?” It was. And crazy bastards that we were, we raced toward each other and began to dogfight, happy as clams. He had shot down three. Andy led us home and it turned out to be one of the funny moments of our friendship.”
Here, rather than simply turn back at the end of the prescribed mission, Yeager acted on his own and entered another dogfight almost entirely on a whim. This is not the action of a cold, calculating, organized man. Rather, this is the exhibition of spontaneity, one of the lynchpin traits of self-actualizers.
However, the self-actualizing theory runs into a dogfight of its own in that same passage. Self-actualizers exhibit a certain degree of detachment; they have a pressing need for privacy, if not all the time, then at times of immense significance. For instance, both Gandhi and Einstein famously spent time by themselves before embarking on a momentous project, whether relativity or the homespun movement, rather than with friends, relatives or colleagues.
Yeager does not show any inkling of detachment; he exhibits no desire to be alone. Even in this passage, he is buoyed by the sudden appearance of his friend; he is about to turn the tide in the one of the most pivotal air battles of World War II, yet he needs no time by himself. Or, he does not even desire to couch his memories in terms of going at it alone. Rather, he revels in the partnership and friendship he has with Andy, and indeed, for him, the story’s value is in that moment of laughter with a friend rather than in what he accomplished.
Psychoanalysts would have a problem describing Yeager as a pure self-actualizer because of the assertion that he had no need for privacy, and indeed valued comradery and togetherness and friendship more than solitude.
However, one of the strongest indications that Yeager is a self-actualizer erupts from his self-acceptance. Self-actualizers accept themselves, others and the natural world as they are. They see human nature as is, and have a lack of crippling guilt or shame. They also enjoy themselves without limitation, and feel that they have a right of ownership over the ability to enjoy themselves. They carry no unnecessary inhibitions, either.
Yeager always acknowledged throughout every account that war was wrong and immoral. In a perfect world, there would be no war. However, given his lot in life, the necessity of World War II especially and his chosen profession, Yeager enjoyed his work without regret or limitation. Take, for instance, the following passage:
“That day was a fighter pilot’s dream. In the midst of a wild sky, I knew that dogfighting was what I was born to do. It’s impossible to explain the feeling: it’s as if you were one with that Mustang, an extension of that damned throttle. You flew that thing on a fine, feathered edge, knowing that the pilot who won had the better feel for his airplane and the skill to get the most out of it ….That small, cramped cockpit was exactly where you belonged.”
Note that Yeager is proud of his abilities, respects others’ abilities in planes, and most of all, enjoys himself immensely. He knows that war is immoral, as he himself admits, but given the fact that he is in one, he feels no obligation of guilt associated with enjoying himself. A self-actualizer, indeed.
Yeager as an Extrovert
Eyesnck describes personality traits on the spectrum between extroverted and introverted, with many shades of grey in between. An extrovert, according to Eyesnck, is active, social, impulsive, expressive, reflective and responsible. Extroverts thrive on taking risks.
Yeager is the quintessential extrovert. We have already described his social nature — he thrives on memories that closely intertwine with his friends’ — and the fact that he likes to take risks — pursuing another dogfight rather than completing the mission and returning to base.
We also know that Yeager is impulsive, not directly, but as a result of his spontaneity he exhibits as a self-actualizer. He is, of course, active, as all great leaders and accomplishers are. We have yet to prove, however, that Yeager is expressive, reflective and responsible.
Yeager did not just fly planes; he crafted an art. To him, flying was not so much about the science of aeronautical mechanics, but rather about the expression of an art form: “You were so wired into that airplane that you flew it to the limit of its specs, where firing your guns could cause a stall. You felt that engine in your bones, felt it nibbling toward a stall, throttle wide open, getting maximum maneuvering performance. And you knew how tight to turn before the Mustang snapped out on you … ”
These are not discussions or revelations of flying tactics rather than subtle brush strokes on a canvas. Yeager expresses himself through his flying; he coaxes the plane rather than propels it. So, as an extrovert, Yeager fits the bill perfectly: In a profession highly assigned to science and mathematics, Yeager still finds a way to express himself eloquently.
Yeager is also reflective. He does not simply drive forth and achieve; he looks back for the big picture view and contemplates the consequences and background of his actions. As we mentioned above, Yeager realizes the immorality of war, its incorrectness and its necessity. He constantly reflects on his position in history and his position in mankind’s path.
And of course, Yeager displays every trait associated with responsibility. He led his fighter wings into battle, never flinched in the sight of danger and was an instructor as well as leader in flight schools.
Yeager displays all of the traits of the extrovert, and — with the exception of his lack of need for solititude — is the perfect case study for self-actualization.
Yeager, Chuck & Janos, Leo. “Yeager.” New York: Bantam.
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