Meh. Tom was always an also ran. Here's The Right Stuff...
Those Daring Young Men in Their Flying Machines. . .
Ain't What They Used to Be!
Hunter S Thompson, Pageant, September 1969
Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men's reality. Weird heroes and mold-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of "the rat race" is not yet final. Look at Joe Namath, they say; he broke all the rules and still beat the system like a gong. Or Hugh Hefner, the Horatio Alger of our time. And Cassius Clay -- Muhammad Ali -- who flew so high, like the U-2, that he couldn't quite believe it when the drone bees shot him down.
Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot shot down over Russia, is now a test pilot for Lockheed Aircraft, testing newer, more "invincible" planes in the cool, bright skies above the Mojave Desert, in the Antelope Valley just north of Los Angeles. The valley is alive with aviation projects, particularly at Edwards Air Force Base, near Lancaster, where the Air Force tests its new planes and breeds a new, computerized version of the legendary, hell-for-leather test pilot. Air Force brass at Edwards is appalled at the persistence of the old "kick the tire, light the fire, and away we go" image. The key word in today's Air Force, they insist, is "professionalism." This made my visit to the base a bit tricky. It was painfully obvious, even after an hour or so of casual talk, that the hard-nosed pros on the flight line resented the drift of my conversation -- particularly when I asked about things like "dueling societies." The Air Force has never valued a sense of humor in its career men, and in high-risk fields like flight testing, a sense of the absurd will cripple a man's future just as surely as an LSD habit.
Test pilots are very straight people. They are totally dedicated to their work and not accustomed to dealing with slip-shod civilians who seem even faintly disorganized -- especially writers. My image was further queered by a painfully cracked bone in my right hand, which forced me to use my left in all formal introductions.
At one point, while talking to two colonels, I lamely explained that I break my hand about once a year. "Last time," I said, "it was a motorcycle wreck on a rainy night; I missed a shift between second and third, doing about seventy on a bad curve." Zang! That did it. They were horrified. "Why would anybody do a thing like that?" asked Lieutenant Colonel Ted Sturmthal, who had just come back from flying the huge XB-70 acoss the country at the speed of sound. Lieutenant Colonel Dean Godwin, who is rated, along with Sturmthal, as one of the top test pilots in the Air Force, stared at me as if I'd just produced a Vietcong watch fob.
We were sitting in a sort of gray-plastic office near the flight line. Outside, on the cold, gray runway, sat a plane called the SR-71, capable of flying 2000 m.p.h. -- or about 3100 feet per second -- in the thin air on the edge of the earth's atmosphere, nearly 20 miles up. The SR-71 has already made the U-2 obsolete; the thrust of its two engines equals the power of 45 diesel locomotives and it cruises at an altitude just inside the realm of space flight. Yet neither Sturmthal nor Godwin would have balked for an instant at the prospect of climbing into the cockpit of the thing and pushing it as high and hard as it could possibly go.
The Air Force has been trying for 20 years to croak the image of the wild-eyed, full-force, "aim it at the ground and see if it crashes" kind of test pilot, and they have finally succeeded. The vintage-'69 test pilot is a supercautious, super-trained, superintelligent monument to the Computer Age. He is a perfect specimen, on paper, and so confident of his natural edge on other kinds of men that you begin to wonder -- after spending a bit of time in the company of test pilots -- if perhaps we might not all be better off if the White House could be moved, tomorrow morning, to this dreary wasteland called Edwards Air Force Base. If nothing else, my own visit to the base convinced me that Air Force test pilots see the rest of us, perhaps accurately, as either physical, mental, or moral rejects.
I came away from Edwards with a sense of having been to IBM's version of Olympus. Why had I ever left that perfect world? I had been in the Air Force once, and it had struck me then as being a clumsy experiment in mass lobotomy, using rules instead of scalpels. Now, ten years later, the Air Force still benefits from the romantic pilot myth that its personnel managers have long since destroyed.
Back in the good old days, when men were Men and might was Right and the Devil took the hindmost, the peaceful desert highways in Antelope Valley were raceways for off-duty pilots on big motorcycles. Slow-moving travelers were frequently blown off the road by wildmen in leather jackets and white scarves, two-wheeled human torpedoes defying all speed limits and heedless of their own safety. Motorcycles were very popular toys with the pilots of that other, older era, and many an outraged citizen was jerked out of his bed at night by the awful roar of a huge four-cylinder Indian beneath his daughter's window. The image of the daredevil, speedball pilot is preserved in song and story, as it were, and in films like the Howard Hughes classic, Hell's Angels.
Prior to World War II, pilots were seen as doomed, half-mythical figures, much admired for their daring, but not quite sane when judged by normal standards. While other men rode trains or chugged around the earth in Model-Ts, barnstorming pilots toured the nation with spectacular "aviation shows," dazzling the yokels at a million county fairs. When their stunts went wrong, they crashed and often died. The survivors pushed on, treating death like a churlish, harping creditor, toasting their own legend with beakers of gin and wild parties to ward off the chill. "Live fast, die young, and make a good-locJking corpse." That gag got a lot of laughs at debutante parties, but in aviation circles it seemed a bit raw, a little too close to the bone. It was especially pertinent to test pilots, whose job it was to find out which planes would fly and which ones were natural death-traps. If the others took lunatic risks, at least they took them in proved planes. Test pilots, then and now, put the products of engineers' theories to the ultimate test. No experimental plane is "safe" to fly. Some work beautifully, others have fatal flaws. The Mojave Desert is pockmarked with the scars of failure. Only the new ones are visible; the older scars have been covered over by drifting sand and mesquite brush.
Each funeral means more donations, from friends and survivors, to the "window fund." The Test Pilots' Memorial Window in the chapel is a wall of colorful stained-glass mosaics, paid for with donations that otherwise might have gone into the purchase of short-lived flowers. The original idea was to have only one memorial window, but each year invariably brought more donations, so that now there are only a few plain windows left. All the others have been replaced by stained-glass memorials to the 100 names on the plaque in the chapel hallway.
Two or three new names are added each year, on the average, but some years are worse than others. There were no flight-test fatalities in either 1963 or 1964. Then, in 1965, there were eight. In 1966, the death count dropped to four, but two of these occurred on a single day, June 8th, in a mid-air crash between a single-seat fighter and one of the only two XB-70 bombers ever built.
That was a very bad day on Edwards. Test pilots are very close: They live and work together like a professional football team; their wives are good friends, and their children are part of the same small world. So a double fatality shatters everybody. Today's test pilots and their families live nearly as close to death as the old-time pilots ever did -- but the new breed fears it more. With rare exceptions, they are married, with at least two children, and in their off-duty hours they live as carefully and quietly as any physics professor. A few ride little Hondas, Suzukis, and other midget motorcycles, but strictly for transportation -- or, as one of the pilots explained, "So Mama can use the family car." The flight-line parking lot, where working pilots leave their cars, looks no different from any supermarket lot in San Bernardino. Here again, with rare exceptions, the test pilot's earthbound vehicle is modest -- probably a five-year-old Ford or Chevy, perhaps a Volkswagen, Datsun, or other low-priced import. At the other end of the flight line, in front of the test pilots' school, the mix is a bit livelier. Of the 46 cars I counted there one afternoon, there was one Jaguar XKE, one IK-150, one old Mercedes with a V-8 Chevy engine, one Stingray; all the rest were clunkers. A cluster of motorcycles stood near the door, but the hottest one in the lot was a mild-mannered 250 Yamaha.
The midnight roads around Antelope Valley are quiet these days, except for an occasional teen-age drag race. Today's test pilots go to bed early, and they regard big motorcycles with the same analytical disdain they have for hippies, winos, and other failure symbols. They take their risks, on assignment, between dawn and 4:30 P . M . But when their time is their own, they prefer to hunker down in the wall-to-wall anonymity of their one-story, flat-roofed, Levittown-style homes between the base golf course and the officers' club, there to relax in front of the tube with a succulent TV dinner. Their music is Mantovani, and their idea of an "artist" is Norman Rockwell. On Friday afternoons, from four-thirty to seven, they crowd into the officers' club bar for the weekly "happy hour," where most of the talk is about planes and current test projects.
Then, just before seven, they go home to pick up their wives and dress for dinner, again at "the club." After dinner there will be a bit of dancing to the jukebox or maybe a small combo. Heavy drinking is out of the question; a drunken test pilot is viewed with genuine alarm by the others, who see any form of social excess -- drink, wenching, late hours, any "unusual" behavior -- as an indication of some deeper problem, an emotional cancer of some kind. Tonight's juicer is tomorrow's -- or Monday's -- hangover risk, a pair of slow-focusing eyes or an uncertain hand at the controls of a $100 million aircraft. The Air Force has trained three generations of elite-level pilots to abhor any hint of foreseeable human risk in the flight-test program. The planes, after all, are risky enough, they are the necessary unknown factor in the equation that every test project ideally boils down to. (Test pilots are very hip to equations; they can describe a plane and all its characteristics, using nothing but numbers.) And a cool waterhead knows that an equation with only one unknown factor is a hell of a lot simpler to cope with than an equation with two. The idea, then, is to minimize the chance of a second unknown factor -- such as an unpredictable pilot -- that might turn a simple flight-test equation into a scorched crater on the desert and another wave of donations to the "window fund."
Civilian test pilots, working on contract for companies like Boeing or Lockheed, are just as carefully screened as their soul brothers in the Air Force. The men who run the "military-industrial complex" are not about to entrust the fruits of their billion-dollar projects to the kind of pilot who might be tempted to zoom a new plane under the Golden Gate Bridge at rush hour. The whole philosophy of research testing is to minimize the risk. Test pilots are sent up with specific instructions. Their job is to perform a set of finely plotted maneuvers with the plane, to assess its performance in specific circumstances -- stability at high speeds, rate of acceleration at certain climb angles, etc. -- and then to bring it down safely and write a detailed report for the engineers. There are plenty of fine pilots around, but only a handful can communicate in the language of superadvanced aerodynamics. The best pilot in the world -- even if he could land a B-52 on the Number Eight green at Pebble Beach without taking a divot --would be useless on a test-flight project unless he could explain, in a written report, just how and why the landing could be made.
The Air Force is very keen on people who "go by the book," and there is, in fact, a book -- called a technical order -- on every piece of equipment in use, including planes. Test pilots can't go by "the book," however, because for all practical purposes, they are the people who write it. "We push a plane to its absolute limits," said a young major at Edwards. "We want to know exactly how it performs under every conceivable circumstance. And then we explain it, on paper, so other pilots will know what to expect of it."
He was standing on the flight line in a bright-orange flying suit, a baggy one-piece thing full of special pockets and zippers and flaps. These pilots are sporty-looking people, vaguely resembling a bunch of pro-football quarterbacks. The age bracket is early thirties to late forties, with a median around 37 or 38. The average age in the U.S.A.F. Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards is 30. Nobody over 32 is accepted; few pilots younger than 29 have logged enough air time to qualify. From a list of 600 to 1000 applicants each year, the school picks two classes of 16 men each. Washouts are rare; the screening process is so thorough that no candidate who appears to be even faintly questionable survives the final cut. Forty-one of the nation's 63 astronauts are graduates of the test pilots' school -- a military version of Cal Tech and M.I.T. --the ultimate in aviation academics.
A sense of elitism is pervasive among test pilots. There are less than 100 of them on Edwards, with several hundred more spread out on testing projects from coast to coast. But Edwards is the capital of their world. "It's like the White House," says recently retired Colonel Joseph Cotton. "After Edwards, the only direction a test pilot can go is down; any other assignment is practically a demotion."
Colonel Cotton is the man who saved one of the $350 million experimental XB-70s by short-circuiting a computer with a paper clip. The huge plane's landing gear had jammed, making it impossible to land. "You can't argue with a black box," said the colonel, "so we had to fool it." While the plane circled the base and engineers on the ground radioed careful instructions, Joe Cotton took a flashlight and a paper clip and crawled into the dark landing-gear bay to perform critical surgery in a maze of wires and relays.
Incredibly, it worked. He managed to short the faulty circuit out of the chain of command, as it were, and trick the computer into lowering the landing gear. The plane landed with locked brakes and flaming tires, but no serious damage -- and "Joe Cotton's paper clip" was an instant legend.
I found Colonel Cotton at his new home in Lancaster, pacing around his living room while his wife tried to place a call to a fellow pilot whose teen-age son had been killed the day before in a motorcycle accident. The funeral was set for the next afternoon, and the whole Cotton family was going. (The flight line was empty the next day. The only pilot in the test-operations building was a visiting Britisher. All the others had gone to the funeral.)
Joe Cotton is 47, one of the last of the precomputer generation. By today's standards, he wouldn't even quality for test-pilot training. He is not a college graduate, much less a master of advanced calculus with an honors degree in math or science. But the young pilots at Edwards speak of Joe Cotton as if he were already a myth. He is not quite real, in their terms: a shade too complex, not entirely predictable. At a recent symposium for the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, Colonel Cotton showed up wearing a Mickey Mouse wristwatch. All the other pilots thought it was "great" -- but none of them rushed out to buy one for themselves. Joe Cotton is a very gentle, small-boned man with an obsessive interest in almost everything. We talked for nearly five hours. In an age of stereotypes, he manages to sound like a patriotic hippie and a Christian anarchist all at once.
"The greatest quality you can build into a plane," he says, "is the quality of forgiveness." Or: "Having control of that airplane is like having control of your life; you don't want it wandering around up there, trying to get into a spin and crash. . .
"Flight testing is a beautiful racket. . . Being a test pilot on the Mojave Desert in America is the greatest expression of freedom I can think of. . ." And suddenly: "Retiring from the Air Force is like getting out of a cage. . ."
It is always a bit of a shock to meet an original, unfettered mind, and this was precisely the difference between Colonel Joe Cotton and the young pilots I met on the base. The Air Force computers have done their work well: They have screened out all but the near-perfect specimens. And the science of aviation will benefit, no doubt, from the ultimate perfection of the flight-test equation. Our planes will be safer and more efficient, and eventually we will breed all our pilots in test tubes.
Perhaps it will be for the best. Or maybe not. The last question I asked Joe Cotton was how he felt about the war in Vietnam, and particularly the antiwar protests. "Well," he said, "anytime you can get people emotionally disturbed about war, that's good. I've been an Air Force pilot most of my life, but I've never thought I was put on earth to kill people. The most important thing in life is concern for one another. When we've lost that, we've lost the right to live. If more people in Germany had been concerned about what Hitler was doing, well. . ." He paused, half-aware -- and only half-caring, it seemed -- that he was no longer talking like a colonel just retired from the U.S. Air Force.
"You know," he said finally. "When I fly over Los Angeles at night, I look down at all those lights. . . six million people down there. . . and that's how many Hitler killed. . ." He shook his head.
We walked outside, and when Joe Cotton said good night, he smiled and extended his left hand -- remembering, somehow, after all that rambling talk, that I couldn't use my right. The next afternoon, in the officer's club bar, I decided to broach the same question about the war in a friendly conversation with a young test pilot from Virginia, who had spent some time in Vietnam before his assignment to Edwards. "Well, I've changed my mind about the war," he said. "I used to be all for it, but now I don't give a damn. It's no fun anymore, now that we can't go up north. You could see your targets up there, you could see what you hit. But hell, down south all you do is fly a pattern and drop a bunch of bombs through the clouds. There's no sense of accomplishment." He shrugged and sipped his drink, dismissing the war as a sort of pointless equation, an irrelevant problem no longer deserving of his talents.
An hour or so later, driving back to Los Angeles, I picked up a newscast on the radio: Student riots at Duke, Wisconsin, and Berkeley; oil slick in the Santa Barbara Channel; Kennedy murder trials in New Orleans and Los Angeles. And suddenly Edwards Air Force Base and that young pilot from Virginia seemed a million miles away. Who would ever have thought, for instance, that the war in Vietnam could be solved by taking the fun out of bombing?