The Ophthalmologist’s Time Machine: Chapter 14
Another entry in our sub-series on one-eyed warriors. This month – how ace US test pilot Chuck Yeager almost lost an eye
“Out loud every true Navy aviator insisted that Pax River was the place … and inwardly knew it really wasn’t. For every military pilot knew where the apex of the great ziggurat was located. You could point it out on a map. The place was Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert 150 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Everyone knew who resided there, too, although their actual status was never put into words. Not only that, everyone knew the name of the individual who ranked foremost in the Olympus, the ace of all the aces, as it were, among the true brothers of the right stuff.” – Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff (1979).
The loss of an eye is a highly unfavorable outcome in ophthalmology – it affects stereopsis, visual field, and overall quality of life. So, it is perhaps surprising to find that many of history’s most celebrated military commanders had monocular vision – typically the result of trauma.
This series has reviewed commanders who unquestionably lost an eye, including Philip II of Macedon (circa 383-336 BC) and Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino (1422-1482), plus one, Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) who may have exaggerated his injury for secondary gain. Here, we review a striking “near miss” – Charles “Chuck” Yeager (1923-2020), perhaps history’s greatest fighter pilot, sustained a serious facial injury but, due to a lucky break, emerged with his eye intact.
Yeager, from a small town in West Virginia, joined the US army at age 18 and became an “ace” in World War II. After the war, he became a test pilot at Muroc Army Airfield in California, which was later renamed Edwards Air Force Base. There, he famously broke the sound barrier in a Bell X-1 rocket-powered plane in 1947 – a feat that was considered impossible by many leading engineers of the time. Tom Wolfe, in his 1979 nonfiction bestseller The Right Stuff, noted, “Not being an engineer, Yeager didn’t believe the ‘barrier’ existed.”
Yeager continued test flights even after he became commandant of the US Air Force Research Pilot School at Edwards. In 1963, he flew a Lockheed NF-104A to an altitude of 104,000 feet when the engine failed, forcing him to eject or “punch out” at 11,000 feet. In this procedure, the seat was fired out of the plane by a small rocket, and the pilot was then separated from the seat. Ordinarily the seat would fall away and the pilot would parachute to safety, but in this case the seat became entangled in the parachute lines and collided with Yeager’s helmet, breaking the face visor. Even worse, burning material from the small seat-mounted rocket (described by Wolfe as “lava”) splashed past the broken visor into the helmet.
Wolfe describes it: “Something slices through his left eye… He’s knocked silly… He can’t see a goddamned thing… The burning snaps him to… His left eye is gushing blood… It’s pouring down inside the lid and down his face and his face is on fire.” With his left hand, Yeager managed to open up the helmet enough to allow a rush of air to enter and extinguish the flames. Wolfe continues: “The fire is out. He can breathe. He can see out of his right eye… He can’t open his left eye… Now he can feel the pain… Half his head is broiled…”
Despite the burn injuries, Yeager successfully parachuted to the desert floor, where he was picked up by an Air Force helicopter and taken to a hospital. Wolfe writes: “At the hospital they discovered one stroke of good luck. The blood over Yeager’s left eye had been baked into a crust-like shield. Otherwise he might have lost it. He had suffered third- and second-degree burns on his head and neck.”
Yeager recovered fully. Photographs of the left side of his face, taken years after the event, show no apparent facial scars or damage to the left eye. He returned to flying combat missions and retired from the Air Force in 1975. He lived to be 97 years old.
Professor of Clinical Ophthalmology, Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Naples, FL, USA
Associate Professor, Department of Ophthalmology, Virginia Commonwealth University and Richmond VA Medical Center, Richmond, Virginia, USA
Andrzej Grzybowski is a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Warmia and Mazury, Olsztyn, Poland, and the Head of Institute for Research in Ophthalmology at the Foundation for Ophthalmology Development, Poznan, Poland. He is EVER President, Treasurer of the European Academy of Ophthalmology, and a member of the Academia Europea. He is a member of the International AI in Ophthalmology Society (https://iaisoc.com/) and has written a book on the subject that can be found here: link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-030-78601-4.