Sunday, May 11, 2014

The right stuff

Like any era, the current one has plenty of grumbling about "those damn kids" and about how "men were men" back in the day. It's always been that way. And so it was when Bill Dana, one of the most accomplished test pilots in world history, died last week. A common reaction was that when men were men, you see, people flew by the seat of their pants and didn't care about no namby-pamby rules.

But that's not the way it was at all.

Flight testing has always pushed the limits, and always will. Sometimes it seems like programs took more risks back in the '50s, '60s and '70s, and I think that's true to a certain extent. There were definitely more risks, but that was largely a function of where technology and science stood.

For instance, we know much more about how extremely high Mach-number flight works, have much better computer systems, and have satellites that enable communications anywhere, anytime. The result? We didn't strap a man onto the top of an ICBM and send him hurtling downrange at Mach 20 in DARPA's Falcon program. That's good, because...

In short, we are pushing into more dangerous flight regimes than ever before, and can gather data without putting a person at risk. That's not a bad thing.

More to the point, though, guys like Dana didn't fly by the seat of their pants. He was an engineer with a master's degree who pushed aircraft as far as he could, and could analyze and explain what worked and what didn't.

Good flying leads to good photo ops (that's Dana in the foreground).

So what is the right stuff, which Tom Wolfe wrote about and Dana more or less embodied? It's knowing how to fly, sure. It's having the courage to push the aircraft. But it's also being smart enough to understand why it's happening (and why to follow the namby-pamby rules). And fortunately those qualities are still here in the 21st Century.

1 comment:

Rick Ackerly said...

Great article, Gerry. ...and an important message. As we create our Myths for Today, your story not only corrects unhelpful myths, but creates a new one. Yes, let's be courageous in pushing the envelope, AND let's make sure our prefrontal cortex develops apace.