Catchy title, eh?
One of the benefits of going back to school is that I know have potential blog posts as assignments. They won’t usually be the standard goofball stuff the readers of Life of Ando have become acustomed to, but maybe a little more polished. Hopefully. Anyway, here is the first paper I’ve had to write this session. For the record I got an 18.5 out of 20 possible points.
Even before the Wright brothers first lifted off the sandy beaches of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, mankind has been fascinated with flight. From the legend of Icarus’ wax and feather wings, to the hot air balloons of late 18th Century France, to Saturn rockets, human beings have striven to fly faster and higher. As propellers gave way to jet engines, and jet engines gave way to rockets, the degree of difficulty for piloting such craft grew exponentially. The men who would embrace this type of dangerous flying were those that possessed a rare and exceptional set of traits, what author Tom Wolfe called The Right Stuff in his book of the same name.
But what exactly is the right stuff? Is it a physical characteristic? Is it a psychological edge? An attitude? A personality trait? Or is it some mystical amalgamation of all these things and perhaps more? According to Wolfe, the men themselves, the test pilots, those who possessed the mysterious quality, would never speak of what it was. He states, “This quality, this it, was never named, however, nor was it talked about in any way.” There were no goals that once achieved would trigger a bestowal of the rank and title of Steward of the Right Stuff. As Wolfe explains, “Nor was there a test to show whether or not a pilot had this righteous quality. There was instead a seemingly infinite series of tests.” Though not articulated, those in what Wolfe calls “The Brotherhood of the Right Stuff” knew who had it and who didn’t. Defining something as abstract and nebulous as the right stuff is a difficult task, at least to do so in a clear and concise manner. At best it can be defined as a combination of physical, mental, and personality endowments.
A test pilot has to possess certain physical qualities before even being considered for that role. Without perfect eyesight and flawless reflexes, flying a rocket driven plane at or beyond the speed of sound could be called nothing short of suicide…that is if one could even get it off the ground. The slightest physical imperfection would cost a pilot his job, not to mention his status as a barer of the right stuff. In the civilian world no one is looked down upon for not being able to do a job because of a doctor’s note. But in the world of the “fighter jock” it is a “humiliation…for it meant you no longer had that indefinable, unutterable, integral stuff.”
If not for the fact that the lack of the physical attributes disqualifies a potential pilot immediately, the mental characteristics necessary could be even more crucial. One who has the right stuff is one who can not only grasp the immense technical aspects of flying, but has rapidity of synapses to react quickly, and correctly, to any number of malfunctions. Wolfe explains, “If he was barreling down the runway at two hundred miles an hour…and the board started lighting up red…” what are his options? “He would have one second to sort out the options and act.”
The mental aspect is not confined to technical proficiency, however. The personality, or as Wolfe says, “the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness…” is an equally essential component to the mixture. What if a pilot does get himself “into a bad corner” and has to ask for help? Does that disqualify him from The Brotherhood of the Right Stuff? A pilots ego is titanic, but necessarily so. The test pilot must be supremely confident in his possession of the right stuff. The moment of self-doubt would soon become the moment of self-inflicted termination otherwise. In one sense, how could the pilot’s ego not be outsized? Of the tens of millions of citizens, he is in the elite military. Within that elite military he is in an even more exclusive group of officers. Of that elite group, he is in the even more elite group of aviators. Of that elite group he is in the even more elite group of test pilots. He is one of only a handful who has seen the sun, the moon, and the stars all at same instant. He travels at speeds the Sunday motorist could not comprehend and does so with the aplomb.
There have been many who have possessed the attributes discussed, but it is the proper combination of them that give rise to the elite class of test aviator. Physical prowess without mental aptitude is mere athleticism. Mental aptitude without physical strength is academia. An oversized ego without mental aptitude is hollow vanity. Only the proper combination of these characteristics can truly be called the right stuff.