View Full Version : 60 Years Ago Today

7th Oct 2008, 16:06
October 5, 2008

Press protected Chuck Yeager after fabled flight under city bridge

By Sandy Wells
Staff Writer
The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Nothing on the radio. Not a word in the newspaper.
Not even a picture to prove it. But 60 years later, it remains one of
the most fabled events in Charleston's history.

"It was known only to those of us who saw it and through word-of-mouth
later on," said Neil Boggs, a Clay County native and retired NBC

Nobody talked about it on the record for years, he said. "Tens of
thousands of people saw it. They knew it was done by one of them, for
one of them, and they joined in a conspiracy of silence."

On Oct. 10, 1948, on a festive Sunday afternoon, thousands of people
lined the Kanawha River to watch boat-racing championships sponsored by
The Charleston Gazette. Hundreds more hung over the railings of the
South Side Bridge.

Roaring hydroplanes churned the river into a choppy sea. The Stonewall
Jackson High School band played peppy tunes on the judges' barge.
Announcements from Gazette Editor Frank Knight blared over the public
address system.

Boggs, a 19-year-old Gazette reporter, scribbled hurriedly in his
notebook to keep up with the action.

The F-80 jet appeared out of nowhere.

Bill Kelley, 14, stood midway down the riverbank steps at Brooks Street.
The eventual WSAZ photographer had a camera even then. He forgot to
bring it.

"Frank Knight had just announced that Capt. Chuck Yeager was going to
fly over," Kelley said. "I didn't see a plane in the sky. I looked east,
below the horizon, about where the Capitol is, and I saw a plane. I
actually had to look down to see it. That's how low it was. I thought,
'Oh, my goodness!'"

He watched that jet fly right under the South Side Bridge. The jet did a
victory roll and roared out of sight.

"The crowd went nuts."

"We all just looked at each other open-mouthed in disbelief," said
Boggs. "Then there was a swell of applause. By then, Yeager was probably
halfway to Cincinnati."

"I was on the docks when he did it," said lifelong Charlestonian John
Lilly. "I was 11. It was so quick, it hardly even registered until he
was gone. It shocked me."

He almost missed it. He was watching a crane at the levee plop a
hydroplane race boat in the river. Suddenly, he heard a thunderous sound
in the other direction.

"The plane was about at the bridge. It seemed like it was right on the
water. It went under the bridge. About where Magic Island is now, it
started going straight up. I was flabbergasted. "

Boggs wrote a long story about the boat races the following day. The
article mentioned Yeager's visit: "Capt. Charles Yeager of Hamlin, the
first man to exceed the speed of sound in a Bell XS-1 jet, buzzed the
course shortly after 3:30 p.m. as he started back to his base in
California. Officials present said his speed when he flew over the river
probably was more than 600 miles an hour. As he flew over in a jet
Shooting Star, he did three slow rolls before disappearing from sight."

Three slow rolls? What about flying under the bridge?

That evening, the Daily Mail published a photo of Yeager with his father
at the airport. The caption stated simply that the celebrated pilot
buzzed the boat races on Sunday afternoon.

What about flying under the bridge?

"When I got back to the paper to write my story," Boggs said, "Ed
Brannon, the night city editor, turned a call over to me. It was an Air
Force public information officer from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in

"Flying under a bridge violated all kinds of Air Force and FAA
regulations. He didn't ask me directly if Yeager flew under the bridge.
Instead, he wanted to know if my story would include anything 'unusual'.
He said if a violation had taken place, the Air Force would be forced to
take action. But if it wasn't in print, or hadn't been broadcast or
photographed, then it never happened.

"He asked if we had any photographs. We photographed the races
extensively, but nobody expected Yeager to go under the bridge, so we
didn't have pictures. Anything we got would have been a blur anyway. The
Daily Mail didn't staff it because it was a Gazette promotion. There was
no radio broadcast. And West Virginia didn't get its first commercial TV
station until the following year."

The paper chose to protect him.

"It wasn't exactly suppressing the news. I didn't react as much like a
journalist as a country boy from West Virginia. We were just trying to
protect a local guy who was always in trouble with the Air Force. He was
such a rebel. He basically thumbed his nose at the brass to give the
home folks a show. He's a wonderful character and I think he loved to
defy authority."

"He broke every rule in the book," said Ret. Brig. General J. Kemp
McLaughlin, renowned World War II fighter pilot and former commander of
the West Virginia Air National Guard. "Chuck was a maverick all his
life. That guy would do anything."

He frequently borrowed P-80 jets from the Guard just to fly around,
McLaughlin said. "One time, he brought his brother with him. Those jets
only have one seat. He put his brother on his lap and climbed to the end
of the northwest runway. Just as the gear was coming up, he did a slow
roll with his brother strapped to his lap."

McLaughlin attended a luncheon for Yeager the day of the famous bridge
fly-under. He watched the incident on Kanawha Boulevard, outside the
Press Club. "We all just laughed. Nothing ever surprised me about

Later, Boggs interviewed Yeager concerning space flight. He asked about
the bridge incident. "He said, 'Let's not talk about that.' Then he gave
me that Chuck Yeager grin."

Boggs left the Gazette in 1955. He eventually worked as a correspondent
for NBC and co-hosted "Meet the Press". He taught journalism for 12
years in Belen, N.M., where he retired.

"I got to know Chuck Yeager many times over the years," he said, "but I
never asked him about the bridge thing again. We talked about Hamlin and
fishing and Mud River and going to Huntington on a Saturday night. He
didn't want to talk shop."

In today's technological, media-saturated environment, a cover-up like
the one to protect Yeager in 1948 wouldn't stand a chance, Boggs said.
"It would have been on YouTube in an hour. But in 1948, it was unusual
for a family to even own a box camera."

Yeager knows he lucked out. In 1983, after a talk at the University of
Charleston, a woman in the audience asked him about his historic flight
under the bridge.

"I dropped down to about 6 feet above the water," he said. "They were
having a boat regatta. These guys were coming up river [in their boats]
and I could see their eyes get bigger. I went under the bridge, pulled
up, did a roll and went on... Every time I would come back home in a
jet, or even yesterday in a P-51, I know damned good and well there were
probably at least three press photographers sitting under the bridge
just waiting for me to come back."

That won't happen. "We learned in combat you only make one pass," Yeager said, "because that man is going to shoot you down the second time you come back."

In his autobiography, he mentioned the South Side Bridge along with many
other bridges he flew under in his jet pilot heyday.

He learned to fly low in combat, he told the audience at U.C. "You get
pretty good at flying low with those guys smoking at you," he said.

Over the years, Charlestonians got accustomed to seeing Yeager's plane
swooping over the city. Yeager got a kick out of buzzing the city
whenever he flew to town, Kelley said.

"It was a common occurrence to see him flying over Charleston when he
would come in to see his parents. I was at Lincoln Junior High when he
flew over, and we all waved at him, and he wiggled his wings. He kept
coming around."

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