Col. George E. French of Venice, Fla. Golf & Country Club retired from the Air Force in 1966 after serving in World War II as a B-24 “Liberator” bomber pilot in the Pacific. His final post in his 24-year military career may have been one of his most interesting.
He worked for Eugene Zuckert, secretary of the Air Force and Gen. Curtis LeMay, chief of staff of the Air Force in the 1960s before he retired. He headed the F-104G “Starfighter” jet fighter program from the Pentagon.
“As the head of the F-104G fighter program I was attending a management team meeting in Paris. At this meeting Madam Jacqueline Auriol, a French lady pilot, just broken Jackie Cochran’s Woman’s World Speed Record in a “Mirage “ fighter jet flying 1,266 mph.”
Cochran, who was also at the Paris meeting, told Madam Auriol, ‘I’m going to get that speed record back,” French recalled more than four decades later.
“When I got back to the States a few weeks later, I received a call from Gen. LeMay. He said, ‘George we understand that Jackie Cochran would like to break Madam Auriol speed record. Can you handle that?’
“I told the general the only airplane we had that could break that record was the F-104G “Straighter.” It could reach Mach-2 speeds and beyond,” French said.
The colonel questioned whether it was a bright thing to put a 54-year-old woman in a supersonic jet fighter even if she did hold a bunch of records for flying fast planes.
“I told Gen. LeMay, if Jackie was going to try and recapture her speed record, it should be attempted at Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert in southern California. I explained to him to break the record she would have to fly a 100-mile straight course and a 300 mile oval course.
“We would also need a chase plane to follow her when she made the attempt. The person flying the second plane should probably be Chuck Yeager, since they are friends. The general told me to check with Chuck and see if he thought it was okay to let her try and set a new speed record in a F-104G.”
It was Yeager who broke the sound barrier in a rocket plane after World War II. He was a flying legend.
“I checked with Chuck and he told me, ‘Jackie can do it,’ French said. “I called LeMay and told him what Chuck said about the flight. At that point the general called his big boss in the White House. Lyndon Johnson was president.
“Jackie knew Ladybird Johnson quite well. The president’s wife thought it would be nice for the United States to have the the fastest women in the world again. Johnson called LeMay and told him to go ahead with the speed record flight.
“It took Jackie, Yeager and the team at Edwards a few weeks to get the F-104G to perform at its peak. They needed perfect weather to reach 30,000 feet and break Mach-2 speed.
“I got the job of overseeing the record-breaking flight. When I arrived Jackie thought I had come down to cancel her attempt and take the airplanes away from her because she hadn’t set the record at this point. I assured her that wasn’t my intent.”
Three weeks later she captured the – (FAI) at 1127.397 mph for the second time and got the the title back from Madam Auriol.
Before she quite flying Jackie had won more speed and altitude records than any man or woman alive. Possibly her greatest achievement wasn’t an airplane speed record. During World War II she became the director of the Woman’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) in 1942. Their job was to replace men and fly new fighters and bombers from the factory to air fields around the country where men would end up in the cockpit. On Dec.20, 1944 the Woman’s Air Force Service Pilot program was discontinued and the women were sent home.
They weren’t recognized for their service to this country until fairly recently when they were finally awarded veterans benefits like their male counterparts. In 1971 she was the first woman to become a member of the Aviation Hall of Fame.
On Aug. 9, 1980 she died at her home in Indio, Calif.
Part two was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Aug. 24, 2015 and is republished with permission.
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George E. French Jr.
George E. French, Jr, (Colonel USAF, Retired) age 93, passed away peacefully at his home in Venice, Florida on October 11, 2015.
A funeral Mass will be offered on Tuesday, October 20, 2015 at 10:00 a.m. at Our Lady of Prompt Succor church in Alexandria, LA. Interment will follow in Greenwood Memorial Park.
Mr. French was born on December 30, 1921 to Marguerite Kelsoe French and George Edward French. He was predeceased by his parents, his brother Edwin, his sister, Elsie French Krison and the mother of his seven children, Jayne McCready French. He was very proud of his surviving six sons and one daughter, George III (Jenny), Jean Marie Smith (Bryan), John (Fay), David (Mary Alice), Thomas, Mark (Leslie) and Daniel. He is also survived by 11 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren.
George spent most of his adult life in the US Air Force, starting out in 1942 at Foster Field in Victoria, Texas.
He flew 45 missions in the B-24 “Liberator” in WWII as part of the “Long Rangers” of the 370th Squadron, 307th Bomb Group, 13th Air Force. In his return to civilian life after the war, George attended LSU, spent a year with Delta Airlines and received his BS in Accounting from the University of Colorado. He received his MBA from the University of Texas, re-entered the ranks of the Air Force and was Liaison Officer with the Auditor General’s office for the US Air Force Academy. Command and Staff School followed, as well as Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama. After a stint at the Pentagon, heading up the F104G “Starfighter” program, George retired from his beloved Air Force and moved his family to Dallas, Texas. He was the program director at LTV for the A-7 “Corsair II” Navy fighter jet. After spending several years in the real estate business with Ebby Halliday in Dallas, he retired for good and moved to Florida.
George was a gallant ladies man, a gourmet cook, an expert skier, a sports aficionado and a graceful ballroom dancer. He had a life-long love affair with okra, gumbo, shrimp, crawfish, French bread and martinis. He excelled at so many different things, from cooking to flying to skiing to dancing to gardening to beating his seven children at Spades, Dominoes and Scrabble. His charity extended from orphans in Mexico to the children of Boys Town. He was always a true “Southern gentleman”. The most important things in his life to him, beside his children, were Faith and Love. As his body failed him, his mind was forever spinning out stories of days gone by. He could watch and keep up with what was playing on three TV’s simultaneously. He had a love for all things sports-related and his “bets” with his sons were generally right-on!
George liked to think that he was still the “Colonel” in dealing with his children and grandchildren. . . hence the name they all called him . . . “Colonel George”! His heart was big and his hatred for broccoli and liver even bigger. He never uttered a curse word and his devotion to Our Lord and the Catholic Church was impeachable. One of his greatest joys was lecturing at Sunday Mass. He is now flying high into the wild, blue yonder. . . and we have to say . . . .”He did it his way.”