LIEBER: Chuck Yeager, “the big daddy of the skies,” comes to Grapevine and tells the story of the first flight faster than the speed of sound.

A day after the Pentagon awarded a $200 billion contract to Lockheed Martin Corp. for the F-35 joint strike fighter, the greatest living aviator in the world came to Grapevine and said he wasn't impressed.

Nobody got mad because this was Chuck Yeager, and, as the retired brigadier general explained in that famous West Virginia drawl, “I get pretty vocal sometimes.”

The audience of several hundred people who paid to listen to his lecture, sponsored by the American Airlines C.R. Smith Museum, laughed when he poured water on the biggest military contract in history.

“Lockheed will run me off the stage if they were here,” he told the crowd at Grapevine Convention Center.

A man in the audience piped up, “Don't ask me where I work.” Everyone laughed again.

If anyone can criticize one of the biggest things to happen to Tarrant County – and get away with it – it's Yeager, the first pilot to fly faster than the speed of sound. Yeager accomplished that in 1947 in an X-1 rocket-powered jet built by Bell Aircraft. Now 78, he retired from active duty in 1975.

Writer Tom Wolfe once described Yeager as “the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff.” Part of having the right stuff is getting to say what's on your mind. Then you pause a beat and wait for your audience to laugh.

Yeager came to town to tell the story of how he burst through the sound barrier, but his throwaway remarks about the F-35 came during a question-and-answer period afterward. Except nobody even asked Yeager about the F-35. He brought it up himself.

Yeager dismissed the F-35's ballyhooed ability to take off and land in the vertical mode as “propaganda.” He said it wasn't necessary and would probably cause big problems.

The F-35 will work like a helicopter only when its fuel load is light enough to fly for about 10 minutes, he said. The amount of heat emitted from the engines will be dangerous, he said. And if you add weapons to the load, the extra weight will make it even more difficult, he told the audience.

Oh, and he also said that it costs too much. The technology was available to build a similar plane 15 years ago for $16 million, and now it's going to cost many times that, he said.

Asked about Yeager's comments, Lockheed spokesman Joe Stout said the F-35 meets strict military requirements and includes a fan to protect it from excessive heat.

“If General Yeager has the opportunity to fly our joint strike fighter, I'm sure he would think more highly of it,” he said.

In his lecture, Yeager, who has flown every type of aircraft in the U.S. Air Force inventory, said: “You almost have to go back to basics. … These are all things I know and I've lived with, but I'm not running the Air Force.” He skipped a beat, and everyone laughed again.

When Yeager talks about going back to basics, he knows. This is the aviator who at the peak of his achievements needed a broom handle to help him break the sound barrier. A broom handle! You can't get any more basic than that.

For some reason, Yeager left out that part of the story when he shared his experiences Saturday night. But if he comes to town the day after we win the F-35 contract and lectures us about getting back to basics, it's probably worth recalling that broom handle.

As Wolfe told it in his book The Right Stuff, two nights before his scheduled supersonic flight, Yeager, in the best tradition of a military pilot, spent the night drinking. Then he decided to go on a midnight horseback ride.

Apparently, Yeager was not nearly as good a horseman as he was a pilot, because his horse crashed into a fence gate. Yeager fell and cracked two ribs.

If he had told anyone, he wouldn't have been allowed to fly. So he tried to keep it to himself, except he realized that he wouldn't be able to close the X-1 hatch because of the pain. That was a problem because he would be 7,000 feet in the air when he had to close the hatch, and there would be no crewmen to help.

So he asked his project engineer, Jack Ridley, to step outside the hangar for a quick word.

“Jack, I got me a little ol' problem here,” he said, according to Wolfe. “The other night I sorta dinged my ribs.”

“What do you mean dinged?” Ridley asked.

“Well, I guess you might say I broke a couple of them.”

Ridley found a janitor who cut a broom handle down to 9 inches. When nobody was looking, Ridley hid the stick in the X-1 cockpit.

As the cliche goes, the rest is history.

Other than not talking about the broom handle, Yeager recounted the story of his historic flight in loving detail Saturday night. When he burst past Mach 1 for the first time, he said into his radio, “Say, Ridley, make a note, will you? There's something wrong with this ol' Machmeter. It's gone kinda screwy on me.”

But the only thing wrong was that the jet had hurtled where no Machmeter – or man – had gone before.

Now we move on to the next step, the F-35. Maybe if somebody leaves a broom handle in the F-35 cockpit, “the big daddy of the skies,” as Wolfe called the greatest living aviator, might be more approving.

[This story first appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber column on Oct. 30, 2001.]