In this story from December 1986, legendary test pilot, World War II hero, Air Force general and author Chuck Yeager shares his approach to living life to the fullest, even in one’s senior years.
All my life I’ve flown planes: as a World War II fighter pilot, as the first test pilot to fly faster than the speed of sound. Here I am, 62 years old, and you might think I’ve had my fill of flying. No, sir. I still get a lot of pleasure out of flying an F-20 jet fighter.
But I know too many people who have erected barriers, real brick walls, just because they have gray hair, and prematurely cut themselves off from lifelong enjoyments by thinking, I’m too old to do this or that—that’s for younger people.
Living to a ripe old age is not an end in itself; the trick is to enjoy the years remaining. Unfortunately, many people do not consider fun an important item on their daily agenda. For me, that has always been high priority in whatever I’m doing.
Not long ago the Piper Aircraft people asked me to fly one of their airplanes nonstop from Seattle to Atlanta, to try to establish a new distance speed record. I did it, shaving a couple of hours off the old record. Nobody needs to remind me of how lucky I am. Or how blessed I’ve been by God.
People don’t change just because they grow older. What was fun at 24 is still fun at 62, and I fly, hunt and fish every chance I get. I’m not as limber as I was, but I can still pull eight or nine G’s in a high-performance aircraft, just as I did years ago. And I’m not alone: The two best pilots I’ve known, Andy Anderson and Bob Hoover, fly as much as they can. Bob is still giving air shows around the country every weekend, just as he did back at Dayton’s Wright Field in the early 1950s.
Given our backgrounds and experience, we aren’t doing anything extraordinary. We still have our eyes, reflexes and good health, so strapping us inside an airplane’s cockpit is no different from a 60-year-old driver’s turning on his car engine.
Life is as unpredictable as flying in combat. If the day comes when a flight surgeon tells me I can’t fly anymore in high-performance jets, I can always sneak out back and fly ultralights. Just like when the day dawns that my friend Andy and I can’t manage our treks into the Sierra to fish for golden trout—well, there are still nearby lakes and plenty of rowboats.
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.
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