The Right Stuff: Sam Shepard’s Flight Jacket as Chuck Yeager
Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager, record-setting U.S. Air Force test pilot
Murac Army Air Field (now Edwards Air Force Base), Kern County, California, from fall 1947 to summer 1961
Film: The Right Stuff
Release Date: October 21, 1983
Director: Philip Kaufman
Costume Supervisor: James W. Tyson
Today marks the 75th anniversary of when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier on October 14, 1947, piloting a rocket-propelled Bell X-1 aircraft—named Glamorous Glennis, after his wife—over the Mojave Desert at a speed greater than Mach 1. The event is depicted at the start of The Right Stuff, Philip Kaufman’s 1983 flight epic based on Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction book of the same name, chronicling the pivotal early years of American aeronautics between Yeager’s supersonic achievement and the conclusion of the successful Project Mercury manned space missions.
Producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler had originally hired the prolific William Goldman to pen the screenplay, but director Philip Kaufman disagreed with Goldman’s direction that discarded Yeager’s story in favor of focusing on the Mercury 7 astronauts. After Wolfe turned down the opportunity to adapt his own book, Kaufman drafted his own screenplay in eight weeks, restoring Yeager’s role as he notes that the pilot was one who “truly had ‘the right stuff’.”
The real Yeager served as a technical consultant on The Right Stuff, sharing his expertise, correcting errors, and even giving the actors flying lessons. In turn, the retired Yeager also briefly appeared on screen as Fred, a bartender at the Happy Bottom Riding Club operated by aviator Florence “Pancho” Barnes that featured heavily in the movie. Yeager commented that the cameo was an appropriate role as “if all the hours were ever totaled, I reckon I spent more time at her place than in a cockpit over those years.”
The Right Stuff premiered 39 years ago this week at the Kennedy Space Center, followed five days later by a wide release on October 21, 1983. Though it failed to recoup the box office it deserved, The Right Stuff was rightfully lauded by critics and ultimately nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning four.
Among the nominations was a nod for Sam Shepard’s supporting performance as Yeager, portraying the pilot as quietly fearless, keeping his self-assurance even as he’s passed by for the more glorious NASA assignments due to his lack of the “right” academic credentials. “Sam Shepard did a good job portraying me,” Yeager shared in a 2017 interview with Forbes, published just six months before Shepard’s death and likely more rewarding praise for the actor than any awards.
“What we had done in the Air Force was being overshadowed by NASA. That’s where Tom Wolfe really shined. In doing a book on the seven Mercury astronauts, he began to see that they got professional PR guys to blow them out of shape. He looked back and saw the guys at Edwards were killing themselves doing research for NASA, but no one knew about it,” Yeager also explained in the interview, providing a context that validates Kaufman desire to focus on the entire program at large for his screenplay, which began with the groundbreaking Bell X-1 flight performed by then-USAAF Captain Yeager.
What’d He Wear?
The Right Stuff begins in mid-October 1947, which had already been a fortuitous week for Chuck Yeager as—three years prior, as a USAAF combat pilot—he attained “ace in a day” status by shooting down five enemy aircraft during a single mission on October 12, 1944. Now a test pilot in the newly re-dubbed U.S. Air Force, Captain Yeager has been tapped to become the fastest man on Earth with an opportunity to fly the experimental Bell X-1 rocket plane.
Over his green military flight suit, Yeager wears the dashing Type A-2 leather flight jacket that gained a heroic reputation through its association with World War II flying aces. Designated the “Jacket, Pilot’s (Summer)”, the A-2 was first authorized in 1931 for the U.S. Army Air Corps, replacing the button-up A-1 with its knitted collar.
Originally made of tanned horsehide before goatskin and cowhide were also sourced, the A-2 design replaces the A-1’s knitted collar with a shirt-style collar that can be secured into place with hidden snaps. The A-2 zips up the entire length of the jacket from waist to neck, covered by a fly that snaps closed at the top and bottom. Each patch-style hip pocket also closes with a hidden snap integrated inside each pointed flap. The cuffs and hem are finished with an elasticized ribbed wool for warmth and comfort.
The shoulders are finished with epaulets (shoulder straps), presumably for officers to secure their rank insignia; rather than wearing metal insignia, Yeager has a square patch with the two silver bars indicating his rank of Captain (O-3) embroidered onto a brown leather square that he has sewn over the shoulder of each epaulet. Stitched over the left breast, Yeager wears a similar brown leather patch simply detailed with his gold pilot’s wings and “CAPT YEAGER”.
General H.H. “Hap” Arnold had phased the A-2 out of service by 1943, initially replacing it with the simplified AN-J-3 (which notably lacked a front fly and snap-down collar) before eschewing leather jackets altogether in favor of the cotton sateen B-10 and nylon B-15. This unpopular decision frequently went ignored by airmen who continued to wear the A-2 through the end of World War II, during peacetime, and even into the Korean War by either keeping their originals or sourcing replacements from the hundreds of thousands produced by contractors in the first two years of WWII.
Thus, even two years after the war ended, Captain Yeager continues to wear not just his issued A-2 jacket but also one stripped of its military insignia and badging, worn with his “civvies” for days and nights spent riding and drinking at Pancho’s. This A-2 otherwise echoes his military jacket, similarly styled with its epaulets, fly front, flapped hip pockets, and knitted cuffs and hem.
The day before Yeager’s record-setting, sound barrier-breaking X-1 flight in October 1947 (in real life, it was two nights earlier), he rides up to Pancho’s to enjoy a few drinks with his fellow fliers and their dates, dressed in his usual civilian duds of his unmarked flight jacket, plaid shirt, and khakis.
This first shirt is checked in a muted blue and brown shadow plaid, designed with the usual Western-influenced styling of pointed chest yokes and mother-of-pearl snaps up the front placket. It was reportedly Rockmount Ranch West founder Jack A. Weil who pioneered the addition of snaps (or “poppers”) onto cowboys’ shirt plackets, cuffs, and pocket flaps to allow them to easily break away without tearing or snagging should the wearer get caught among fences, branches, or other obstacles.
In addition to the placket, Yeager’s shirt has two chest pockets with double-pointed “sawtooth” flaps, each with a snap over each point. The shirt cuffs remain covered by the jacket’s sleeves, but they’re presumably also detailed with snap closures. Unlike some Western shirts, the top button on Yeager’s shirt is also a snap like those down the rest of the placket.
Yeager wears khaki cotton straight-leg trousers, similar to those he would have been issued in the Army Air Forces and exemplifying how returning servicemen popularized this style after World War II, expanding them from G.I. garb to an everyman wardrobe staple. These flat-front trousers have “quarter top” slanted side pockets, button-through back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms. He holds them up with a brown leather belt that closes through a gold-toned square single-prong buckle with a matching metal keeper.
The brown belt leather coordinates to his brown leather cowboy boots, naturally appointed with spurs for riding.
After his friendly rival Scott Crossfield’s November 1953 flight that breaks Yeager’s own record by flying at twice the speed of sound, we follow Yeager from newsreel footage congratulating Crossfield to consulting with Dr. Jack Daniels back at Pancho’s. (Just weeks later, a determined Yeager would reclaim his status as “the fastest man alive” by flying at a new record speed of Mach 2.44.)
Recently promoted up the chain to Major and now Lieutenant Colonel, Yeager wears his USAAF (now Air Force) flight jacket, complete with his rank insignia embroidered on his epaulet patches and his name-and-rank badge sewn over his left breast, though the rest of his attire is consistent with his civilian apparel. He wears another plaid shirt, though with a traditional button-up front instead of snaps, checked in a brown, navy, and white tartan plaid with a narrow spread collar, front placket, and button cuffs. His khaki trousers and belt appear to be the same as he had worn six years earlier.
By the summer of 1961, the U.S. was entering a new era of aeronautics as the newly inaugurated President John F. Kennedy was prioritizing the Space Race, Alan Shepard became the first American in space during the Mercury-Redstone 3 mission, and—perhaps most critically—Pancho’s Happy Bottom Riding Club had been destroyed by fire for nearly a decade. (The actual fire had been November 13, 1953, a week before Crossfield’s flight, but The Right Stuff depicts it during the early 1960s.)
While the world around him launches into orbit, the Yeagers ride out to the charred structure, where Glennis reflects on the complicated mix of anxiety and pride that she had felt about her husband’s risky career… and her hope that he won’t become tangled in nostalgia as his career comes to an end. “You know, I’m a fearless man, but I’m scared to death of you,” Chuck deadpans. “Oh, no you’re not… but you oughta be,” she responds before embracing him.
Yeager again wears his unmarked civilian flight jacket, showing considerable patina after decades of wear. His twill flannel shirt is checked in a rich red, green, and ecru tartan plaid, styled with a long point collar, front placket with pearl snaps, and two chest pockets with pointed snap-down flaps. As found on many Western-styled shirts, the top button is a traditional sew-through button rather than a snap.
Rather than his mil-spec khakis, he’s dressed more for Western riding in his dark indigo denim Levi’s 501 jeans, identifiable by the signature “red tab” on the back-right patch pocket. He wears a wider brown leather belt with a tall rectangular gold-finished single-prong buckle.
Through the movie, Yeager wears a stainless steel chronograph on what appears to be a matching expanding “twist-o-flex” bracelet. Designed for tracking speed, the watch has a complicated beige dial with gold numeric hour indices and two sub-registers at the 3 and 9 o’clock positions.
The real Chuck Yeager wore Rolex watches throughout his career, including the Rolex Oyster on his wrist when he broke the sound barrier in 1947. You can read more about Yeager’s long association with Rolex watches at Jake’s Rolex World, which includes such insights as Rolex stating that Yeager had actually advised and influenced some of their watch designs, possibly including the venerable GMT Master that he had started wearing in the late ’50s.
What to Imbibe
October 14 was a Tuesday. On Sunday evening, October 12, Chuck Yeager dropped in at Pancho’s, along with his wife. She was a brunette named Glennis, whom he had met in California while he was in training, and she was such a number, so striking, he had the inscription “Glamorous Glennis” written on the nose of his P-51 in Europe and, just a few weeks back, on the X-1 itself. Yeager didn’t go to Pancho’s and knock back a few because two days later the big test was coming up. Nor did he knock back a few because it was the weekend. No, he knocked back a few because night had come and he was a pilot at Muroc. In keeping with the military tradition of Flying & Drinking, that was what you did, for no other reason than that the sun had gone down. You went to Pancho’s and knocked back a few and listened to the screen doors banging and to other aviators torturing the piano and the nation’s repertoire of Familiar Favorites and to lonesome mouse-turd strangers wandering in through the banging doors and to Pancho classifying the whole bunch of them as old bastards and miserable peckerwoods. That was what you did if you were a pilot at Muroc and the sun went down.
— Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff
Pancho’s Happy Bottom Riding Club is colorfully brought to life on screen, in the spirit of a wild west outpost as Yeager strides in ahead of his X-1 flight and is greeted by Pancho (Kim Stanley) herself, with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in her hand, barking: “Well, Yeager, you old bastard. Don’t just stand there in the doorway like some lonesome goddamn mouse-shit sheepherder, get your ass over here and have a drink!”
Ever the gracious guest, Yeager takes that familiar bottle of Tennessee whiskey and pours himself a glass—drinking it neat—while also pouring some Jack into his drinking pals’ Cokes while listening to the swaggering Slick Goodlin (William Russ) predict he‘ll be the first to break the sound barrier.
How to Get the Look
Even when not defying the laws of physics in flight, Chuck Yeager dresses like the rugged and risk-taking adventurer in leather flight jackets, plaid Western shirts, and cowboy boots that authentically reflect every aspect of his personality and talents, whether in the cockpit or on a saddle.
- Brown horsehide leather U.S. Army Air Force Type A-2 flight jacket with snap-down collar, zip-up front with covered fly, patch-style hip pockets with covered-snap flaps, and ribbed-knit cuffs and hem
- Plaid Western-styled long-sleeve shirt with snap-front placket, two chest pockets with snap-down flaps, and snap-closed cuffs
- Khaki cotton flat-front trousers with belt loops, “quarter” top slanted side pockets, button-through back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- or dark indigo denim Levi’s 501 Original Fit five-pocket button-fly jeans
- Brown leather belt with gold-toned single-prong buckle
- Brown leather cowboy boots
- Stainless steel pilot’s chronograph watch with beige dial (with gold numeric hour indices and two sub-dials) on steel expanding bracelet
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie, and read Tom Wolfe’s source book.
So, when do we go?