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This 103-year-old Virginia veteran still feels the need for speed: 'The faster it was the better'

Posted at 2:07 PM, Apr 19, 2024

MATHEWS COUNTY, Va. — Life moves at two speeds in Mathews County, Virginia — slow or steady.

It's a predictable pace to which one neighbor just can’t seem to adjust.

Meet 103-year-old Chuck "Speedy" Lirette.

Born on the bayou near New Orleans in January 1921, Lirette was just five years old when he began to dream of flying fast.

"I told you all my life I wanted to fly. I was on my way! Nothing could be better. Nothing,” Lirette, who retired to Mathews some 40 years ago, said.

It was in 1940 when the then-teenager got his wish as a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps.

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“Life was moving so fast during World War II. You kept going fast. Forward. Fast. Forward,” he recalled.

Lirette was so proficient in the cockpit he instructed would-be pilots at the beginning of the war.

”Exciting? You couldn’t beat it on Earth. When I flew a plane, I belonged to Heaven itself. I did,” he said.

Captain Lirette finally spread his wings flying dozens of supply missions in China over the towering Himalayas.

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It was one of the most dangerous assignments in the military as Mother Nature was his biggest threat.

In the late 40s, the pilot witnessed history when he saw the test of a nuclear bomb while flying high above the Nevada desert.

"The thing went off. I was looking with a double shield on me and everything. And it was the brightest thing I have ever seen in my life," he said.

The experience was gone in a flash, but its impact lasted decades. Despite being 25 miles away the radiation, it caused cancer on one side of Lirette's face.

”No! I was never afraid,” he said.

Lirette’s career accelerates on land where he eventually worked with NASA’s first group of astronauts and then served with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

”I’m lucky. I’m lucky. I know that,” he said. “It was my life. It was my life.”

But this flyer’s heart remained in the clouds.

During his 27 years in the service, the one-time test pilot flew 27 different types of aircraft.

His insatiable thirst to go faster peaked in the late 1950s when he climbed into the cockpit of the F-104.

The Starfighter single-seat jet appears straight out of science fiction.

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In that plane, he reached Mach 2 — twice the speed of sound.

“Screaming! Looking straight ahead you remember one thing. You look straight ahead and if someone was coming at you at that speed that is a closure rate of 3,000. If you touched them you were dust,” he said.

In 1967, the man who spent more than 291 days in the air touched down for the final time.

Age was nipping at his heels.

”My eyesight got to a point where I could take off but landing was a problem so I let it go," he said.

After retiring from the military, Lirette worked for General Electric after which the married father retired for good and moved to Matthews.

”Unbelievable. 103 years old? It is unreal,” he said.

Chuck Lirette may be grounded these days. But the 103-year-old nicknamed ‘Speedy’ is enjoying the slow ride while it lasts.

“Life changing. Total. Total,” he said. “I would do it again in a minute. I loved what I did. Yes! Absolutely! The faster it was the better. I loved it.”

Watch Greg McQuade's stories on CBS 6 and WTVR.com. If you know someone Greg should profile, email him at greg.mcquade@wtvr.com.

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