The Right Stuff
History - World Released - Apr 26, 2015
You’re cruising at 300 mph in an F-4 Phantom jet, at an altitude of 5000 feet with eyes peering through the afternoon haze, searching for home. In the distance you see it, an aircraft carrier the size of a postage stamp, plowing through the bronze sea. You’ve been cleared to land and begin your decent. You back off the throttle and reduce speed to 150 mph (125 knots)—landing speed. As you approach, the carrier still appears impossibly small, the flight deck much too short to land a supersonic jet. It’s no illusion. At 1100 feet in length, the flight deck is much too short. Your F-4 Phantom is designed to land comfortably on a runway of 5000 feet. To set down on an aircraft carrier at sea will take supreme precision, nerves of steel, and a bit of luck. Landing on a carrier is never routine, and certainly never easy, no matter how many times you’ve done it. To arrest your speed, three steel cables are strewn across the flight deck, one of which you must snag with the hook you have just deployed. At the same time, as you set down on the flight deck . . . no, that is the wrong word. You do not “set down.” You crash down. You drop out of the sky and crash the landing wheels on the flight deck and immediately get back on the thrusters, in the event you come in late and miss the cables, or bounce and miss the cables, one or the other, in which case you’re going to need full power to lift off again, or else plunge nose first into the sea and be forever lost—you, your dreams, and the multi-million dollar F-4 Phantom you’re strapped into, that taxpayers have paid for and in fact is the property of the American people. As you descend, the last thing on your mind is preserving the aircraft and saving taxpayers’ money. No, your one and only concern is survival.
The flight deck surges restlessly in the sea, up and down and side to side. As you close in, you see deck hands standing by and some lunatic with outstretched arms, waving you in. They’re clad in helmets with face masks and wearing fireproof uniforms. Fire fighting equipment and rescue vehicles stand by. You see it all, including the faces peeing at you from the control tower. Everyone watches your approach. They watch but can do nothing. No, it’s all up to you. Oh, there’s a voice in your headphones crying “Too high!” or “Too low! or “Too fast!” Merely words. You’re the one at the controls sweating bullets, the one with the dice who must roll a seven. Will this be the day your luck runs out? Will this be the day that one of a couple dozen things that must happen in order to land goes horribly wrong? The line between landing safely and disaster is so very thin.
The flight deck looms, a gray rectangular slab scarred with black rubber from thousands of landings. This is it. You must force yourself into doing what you know is madness, bringing in a 15-ton supersonic jet at 150 mph and forcing it down on the impossibly short flight deck. The ship rises and falls, for which you make allowances. But as you draw ever closer, allowances no longer matter. It’s now a question of committing to a specific glide path, which may or may not be correct the moment you arrive. The deck surges, you drop the nose, and wheels plow the deck in plumes of white smoke. You get back on the thrusters, and ka-womp! In one earth-stopping slam-jolt, you’re home. It’s that fast, judgement that swift. If you didn’t make it this time, you would have to lift off, come around and try again. Not today. Not this time. You’ve rolled another seven. You climb out and want to raise your fists in triumph. But you can’t. The unwritten code calls for coolness under duress. Coolness, as in, “It’s no big deal.” Coolness, as in “I can do this with my eyes closed.” Coolness, as in you possess the Right Stuff.
Back in the 1970s, Tom Wolfe wrote a book entitled “The Right Stuff” about the original seven Mercury astronauts. While researching the story he discovered a world far more daring and dangerous than orbiting the earth in a space capsule. Spaceflight didn’t require skill, not then. The first living things sent up were monkeys, for crying out loud. Once they were certain the Redstone Rocket wouldn’t blow up on the launching pad, they strapped a human inside a capsule and sent him up under the same conditions as the monkeys. Everything, and I mean everything, was performed by mission control. The original seven astronauts were mere passengers along for the ride. They had to threaten a group walk-out in order to have a small window installed to peer out of, and, after a couple of flights and more protests, a small lever to turn the capsule this way and that while orbiting the earth. The Mercury astronauts were not pilots in the strict sense of the word, in control of their flight. They were guinea pigs, which at first was difficult for them to accept. After all, they came up through the most grueling flight school there is, as test pilots for the U.S. Air Force, something akin to being a riverboat gambler or hired gunslinger, who earned their stripes testing the latest in supersonic jet aircraft. To be an astronaut you had to be among the elite test pilots in the nation, possessed with the moxie to risk it all, to roll the dice day after day, month after month, and keep coming up with sevens. Not every pilot was cut out for this work and not all of them survived. Some would lose their nerve and become flight instructors or airline pilots, and some would crash and burn. Such was the technology in the 1950s, one in four test pilots would not survive the ordeal. But those with the Right Stuff continued going up, continued pushing the envelope, and continued rolling those sevens. To be one of the elite Mercury astronauts you had to be in perfect health, have incredible reflexes, perfect vision, unshakeable confidence, and have the Right Stuff. The irony of it was the Right Stuff didn’t apply. All that was required—other than being put through a variety of human endurance tests, being prodded with a variety of needles, and undergoing endless psychological tests—was to personify the American can-do spirit, to swagger like John Wayne and to express the coolness of James Dean. At this they were more than qualified.
“Were you scared going up there,” the press asked one of the them, after orbiting the earth. “Scared? I’ll tell you what scared is—landing a jet fighter on an aircraft carrier—at night!”
THE MOST RIGHTEOUS OF THE RIGHTEOUS
After the Mercury Program passed into history, Tom Wolfe decided to have a closer look at the original elite seven astronauts. What he learned was the story behind the story, of test pilots pushing the envelope, of space cowboys and river boat gamblers, unwilling to step away from the crap table, addicted to pushing the envelope, and rolling those sevens. These precious few, these survivors of a hundred near-misses, these were the possessors of the Right Stuff. And the most righteous of them all had never been an astronaut. He was a legendary fighter pilot in World War II who by the age of 22 had 13-1/2 kills, and later who stepped inside a captured Russian Mig that no American knew how to fly. He took off, did barrel rolls for all to see, and returned flashing his boyish grin. “Nothin’ to it,” he said. His name was Chuck Yeager. A couple of years later, stationed at Muroc Dry Lake in the California High Desert (now Edwards Air Force Base), he rose early one morning and as the first rays of sunlight broke over the High Desert boarded a transport plane. At forty-thousand feet, he climbed down through the belly of the aircraft and into a small rocket with wings. This was the X-1, designed to break the sound barrier. Only no one had the nerve to do it. Approaching the speed of sound, the rocket with the wings would commence to shaking with such fierceness that pilots would back off the thruster and return to earth. Not Yeager. Despite having a hangover and a broken arm from too much adventure the night before (at Pancho Barnes’, the local watering hole), he climbed in and used a broomstick in place of his useless left arm to close the hatch. Someone pushed the release button, the X-1 dropped from beneath the transporter, and shot off like a bullet. Kriiiiiiiisssshhh! Yeager pushed right on through the vicious turbulence and into the smooth air he sensed would follow once past the sound barrier. On that October morning in 1947, Chuck Yeager became the first man to travel faster than the speed of sound. Twelve years later, when the call went out for candidates for the first manned space mission, the most righteous of the righteous was deemed “too old.” It didn’t matter. He hadn’t applied anyway. He was having too much fun flying high over the California Desert, testing the latest in super sonic aircraft for the Air Force, still pushing the envelope. The Mercury astronauts were proclaimed as American heroes. But, as Tom Wolfe discovered, the one the Mercury astronauts looked up to—the most righteous of the righteous—was Chuck Yeager.
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