Gen Chuck Yeager: NF-104 incident: Scraped My Face Every Four Days

NF-104 incident_Page_ NF-104 smashed on the ground YeagerThen the chopper came for me. I remember the medics running up. I asked them, “Can you do something for my hand? It’s just killing me.” They gave me a shot of morphine through my pressure suit. They couldn’t get the pressure suit off because it had to be zipped all the way down, and then I’d have to get my head out through the metal ring, but my face was in such sorry condition, they didn’t dare.

At the hospital, they brought in firemen with bolt cutters to try to cut that ring off my neck. It just wouldn’t do the job. Finally, I said, “Look in the right pocket of my pressure suit and get that survival saw out of there.” It was a little ring saw that I always carried with me even in backpacks, and they zapped through that ring in less than a minute.

I began dozing off from the morphine, only half aware that Glennis was there, but Doc Stan Bear, the flight surgeon, kept shaking me awake. He was probing into the blood caked over my left eye, where there was a deep gash. The blood was glazed like glass from the heat of the fire, and Doc kept poking through it, asking me if I could see anything. I said no. I heard him mutter, “Christ, I guess he lost it.”

But suddenly I saw a ray of light through a small hole. I told Doc and he smiled. “That dried blood saved your sight, buddy,” he said. Then he let me pass out.

They had me on an IV, and I was so groggy the next day that when General Branch came by, and I tried to tell him what happened, I fell asleep in the middle of a sentence. Glennis, Bob Hoover, and test pilot Tony LeVier, came to visit but I was hardly aware. They were keeping me on painkillers.

So, it was several days before I realized how bad things really were. My face was swollen to the size of a pumpkin, badly charred from being blowtorched. Ol’ Stan Bear came in and sat down. He said, “Well, Chuck, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is your lungs have not been permanently damaged from inhaling flame and smoke, and your eyes look normal. The bad news is I’m going to have to hurt you like you’ve never been hurt before in your life to keep you from being permanently disfigured. And I’m gonna have to do it every four days.”

I stayed in the hospital a month and every four days, Doc started from the middle of my face and neck, scraping away the accumulated scab. It was a new technique to avoid crisscross scars as the skin grew beneath the scabs. And it worked beautifully. I have only a few scars on my neck, but my face healed perfectly smooth. The pain, though, was worse than any I have ever known. I remember Jackie insisting I recuperate at her ranch after I was discharged from the hospital. She said, “I was once a nurse and if something comes up, I’ll know how to handle it.”

Doc Bear flew down there too to do scraping and told her, “Jackie, you may want to leave. This is pretty rough.” And she huffed, hell no, she was a nurse and all that. She lasted about 20 seconds and had to leave the room.

How I wish I could have gone with her! In the end though, I came out no worse than losing the tips of two fingers, and I call that getting away cheap.