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The Right Stuff?

The lantern-jawed test pilot with icewater in his veins. The maverick hotshot pulling a 10g turn to get the drop on an enemy. The cool professional banging it onto a pitching carrier deck and catching the third wire. Through books like Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, its movie version, and films like Top Gun, these images have pervaded our culture. They've had a big effect on the public perception not just of military aviation, but of aviation in general.

As I mentioned in a recent post, I hear many prospective pilots express doubts that they have "what it takes" to fly. I have to wonder to what extent this pervasive idea of the Right Stuff might be influencing their thinking.

What is the Right Stuff? The popular understanding of Wolfe's term seems to be that it's an essential and rare quality that one must possess to "cut it" as a pilot. It's a God-given talent. You either have it or you don't. What's less commonly understood about Wolfe's thesis is that a belief in this quality, which according to Wolfe is never named or discussed in military flying circles, can and did lead its adherents to grief. He cites as proof the appalling safety record of Naval aviation in the years following World War II. As he puts it, "Believers in the Right Stuff would rather crash and burn" than allow the possibility that they might not have 'it' anymore. So in fact Wolfe does not paint a glorious picture of superheroes with special gifts, but rather presents the Right Stuff as a dangerous fiction—the ultimate hazardous attitude.

I asked members of my flying club, many of whom are former military pilots, for their opinions about Wolfe's thesis and the Right Stuff in general. My buddy Hal, a former Naval aviator who flew the Grumman F9F series from the carrier Hornet in the 1950s, had some very illuminating comments.

"I read Wolfe's book with relish because he got so much so right for the time, especially the bravado, the belief in 'specialness' that permeated the Naval aviator's community…at least, in my case, in the beginning. I have many very clear recollections, despite the alcoholic haze of the moment, of us student aviators, in the last advanced phase of our training, congratulating each other on having made it, having proved we had 'it', whatever 'it' was. The truth was, however, that we had no idea of what 'it' was or whether or not we had 'it'. We were very unformed young men and had no notion whatever of what lay in store for us."

Hal went on to describe the importance of his first flight on the wing of an experienced officer as a newly arrived aviator on his first squadron assignment.

"On our return to the ready room, in the presence of others he gave me the highest endorsement one aviator can give to another…'He'll do OK. He's smooth.' At that moment I felt accepted, worthy and qualified to wear the wings. Up to then, that had not been the case. It was a legitimate rite of passage."

In other words, it was this experience and not a belief in predestination that Hal needed to feel capable and confident as a Naval aviator. This is particularly interesting to me because one of the running themes of this blog has been the relationship between confidence and experience. When it comes to developing confidence, I believe there's no substitute for experience. Furthermore, I believe the importance of talent, as a natural, God-given endowment, is often overestimated. We all have different "bents," meaning that some things come more quickly and easily to certain people than others, but ultimately, I believe that practice and experience have a far greater effect. That's why I believe that the myth of the Right Stuff does a disservice to those who long to fly. Hal would seem to agree:

"So for me the bottom line on Wolfe's thesis is that it's overstated and applies to the very few who draw attention to themselves by their attitudes. Naval aviators today do not, in general, have these gung-ho personalities but rather approach the business of aviation much more seriously and responsibly than Wolfe would suggest. They have to. The stakes are higher than they were in Wolfe's day. The machines are more demanding, the systems more complex, the missions more exacting and the watchfulness of their superior officers more judgmental. There is no room in Naval aviation today for the cowboy."

What I take from Hal's comments is that the Right Stuff is not an essential talent, but is instead an overwrought abstraction applicable only to a few military aviators during a specific period in history. If we believe that we need such talent, then there are two possibilities: we either have it or we don't. Even if this is true, we can't possibly know in advance which is the case. If someone asks, "Do you think I have what it takes?" the truth is I don't know. No one does. But if we can't know the answer in advance, what's the point in asking the question? Posed in the abstract, without any experience to draw on, the question is meaningless.

So how do we gain that experience? Well, that's exactly what flight training is: guided experience by which we learn the skills, knowledge, and judgment a pilot needs. Under the watchful eye of a good instructor, we study, practice, and make the necessary mistakes safely and efficiently. We consciously choose our actions, observe the results, and modify our behavior accordingly. Using the observe-act-observe cycle, we develop true confidence, which in turn makes possible the incomparable joys of this endlessly fulfilling craft.

Maybe that confidence, born of our own choices and actions, is the real "right stuff" after all.

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