By Jim Zumbo
I wanted to be a jet pilot ever since I was a kid. I was born and raised a few miles from Stewart Air Force Base near Newburgh, NY and I was thrilled to watch F-86 Sabre jets roar across the sky over my house. In school I’d draw pictures of jets and I vividly remember the nuns smacking my hands with a pointer when they caught me drawing and daydreaming.
My hopes to be a jet pilot were dashed when an eye doctor told me I needed glasses. That was a huge letdown, but I could still dream and fantasize and watch those badass jets scream across the sky.
Decades later I was giving elk hunting seminars at an outdoor Expo in Seattle’s Kingdome and met an exhibitor who owned a fishing lodge in King Salmon, Alaska. As it turned out, owner Mike Cusack and I became good friends. When he invited me up I was beyond excited, but I almost lost it when he told me General Chuck Yeager was a regular guest and suggested I come up when Chuck would be there.
“Don’t bullshit me Mike,” I said. “He’s one of my heroes.”
“It’s no bullshit,” Mike said. “I’ll get you the dates.”
“How in the hell did you get Chuck Yeager to come to your lodge.” I asked.
“Wait til you see it,” he grinned. “I’ve hosted Bob Hope, Dorothy Hamill, Tom Weiskopf and some other celebs. I think you’ll like it.”
Hell, I knew I’d like it. Mike described his operation as a fly-out lodge. Guests form groups and decide what they want to do that day, and the pilots of Mike’s three float planes then whisk the party off to view brown bears feeding on salmon at famous Brooks Falls, or land on a river loaded with salmon where guides will float you down in a raft or driftboat, or take you where you can catch 2-3 pound grayling all day long or whatever you decide to do. .
I barely slept through a night prior to my flights to Alaska. I was giddy, overwhelmed, disbelieving and otherwise a mess. Meeting Chuck Yeager! Are you shitting me? The man who, in 1947, was the first pilot to break the speed of sound? The pilot who became an ace in one day during the Second World War? The pilot who flew countless jets as a test pilot and whose face appeared on the cover of Time magazine where he was called the best pilot ever to fly an airplane? I couldn’t believe my good luck. Thank you Jesus!
The days dragged on and finally the day of departure arrived. After landing in Anchorage I took the daily Mark Air flight and arrived at the lodge. It was even more amazing than the pictures I’d seen in Mike’s brochures. A beautiful large dining room, open bar with the finest wines, liquors and cordials open 24 hours a day and gorgeous bedrooms.
I was nervous as a cat when General Yeager arrived. Mike was hosting a big group of insurance salesmen who crowded around the front door to shake Chuck’s hand. I melted back into a corner of the living room. What do I do? Boldly walk out and introduce myself, or wait to see if Mike spots me and introduces me, or say to hell with it, go to my room and meet him at dinner?
It seemed like hours before the General could break away from the loud salesmen, most of whom had been enjoying Mike’s libations. Mike spotted me and led the General toward me. This was it. I braced myself and tried to calm down.
“General, this is Jim Zumbo. He’s with Outdoor Life magazine,” Mike said.
I extended my hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, General Yeager.”
And with that famous West Virginia drawl he said matter of factly, “ I know who you are. I read your stuff. And call me Chuck.” At that he grinned and walked away.
I was thunderstruck. I think I looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights. He knew me! I’ll be damned.
I needed a strong drink. Maybe a double.
The next morning over breakfast everyone discussed what they wanted to do. In a land where low clouds, fog and poor visibility are common, the pilots announced that flying was a go. Mike, who was now my best friend, put me in a group with the General. I had a wild idea.
“Hey Mike,” I said, “is it possible for Chuck to fly the plane?” (I never asked Chuck directly if he’d do that, because I wasn’t about to ask if he knew how to fly a float plane, in this case a Beaver. That question would have been beyond rude and an insult to the famous pilot.)
Mike pondered the possibility for a moment and said he’d have to contact his insurance company. Of course. Mike picked up the phone at the end of the bar and dialed his agent. There were no speaker phones in those days so we could only hear Mike’s end of the conversation.
“Hello, Bill, I have a question. Is it okay for a guest to fly one of my planes?”
“I figured that, but my guest is a good pilot.”
“Can’t do it, huh? But his name is Yeager.”
“Still can’t do it? What if I told you he’s Chuck Yeager, GENERAL Chuck Yeager.”
Mike grinned widely and looked at Chuck.
“General,” he said, “my agent says you can fly any fuckin’ plane you want.”