Legendary test pilot and flying ace Chuck Yeager died yesterday at age 97. In 1947 the 24 year-old Yeager became first pilot to break the sound barrier. Tom Wolfe‘s “The Right Stuff” (’79) mythologized Yeager — made him into the ultimate jet pilot cool cat. Sam Shepard played Yeager in Phil Kaufman‘s wildly overrated film version, which I hated from the get-go.

Wolfe’s book was an absorbing, insightful take on the Mercury Space Program, a governmental patriotism initiative that promoted personalities and heroism to sell itself to the public. Wolfe passed along the technical intrigues of the early flights and especially the seminal Chuck Yeager lore and how that cockpit attitude influenced every pilot who ever lived. The film, sadly, was a popcorn denigration — an attempt to make populist puree out of almost everything fascinating that Wolfe had reported and made humorous.

[From BennettInk, posted in January 2017] In a letter to his editor about “The Right Stuff”, which he was in the midst of writing, Wolfe explained that it’s not really a book about the space program. It turns out that it’s not even, really, about flying. It’s about the importance of status to men, and what happens when the rules of any status game change.

There had been a status structure to the life of U.S. fighter jocks before the space program, and it was clear to everyone involved. At the top of the pyramid were combat pilots, and at the tippy top were the combat pilots who found their way to Edwards Air Force Base, in the California desert, to test new fighter planes. The courage and spirit required not just to get to Edwards but to survive the test flights. The pilots themselves never spoke of [them], but they were at the center of their existence.

That unspoken quality was what Wolfe called the right stuff, and the embodiment of the right stuff — everyone knows it and yet no one says it — is Chuck Yeager. Hardly anyone outside the small world of combat pilots has ever heard of him. Here is how Wolfe, in a single sentence [HE — but which I’ve broken up into paragraphs], changed that:

“Anyone who travels very much on airlines in the United States soon gets to know the voice of the airline pilot…coming over the intercom…with a particular drawl, a particular folksiness, a particular down-home calmness that is so exaggerated it begins to parody itself (nevertheless!— it’s reassuring)…the voice that tells you, as the airliner is caught in thunderheads and goes bolting up and down a thousand feet at a single gulp, to check your seat belts because ‘it might get a little choppy’.

“Perhaps more fundamentally [it’s a] voice that tells you (on a flight from Phoenix preparing for its final approach into Kennedy Airport, New York, just after dawn): ‘Now, folks, uh…this is the captain
…ummmm…We’ve got a little ol’ red light up here on the control panel that’s tryin’ to tell us that the landin gears’re not…uh…lockin’ into position when we lower ‘em…now, I don’t believe that little ol’ red light knows what it’s talkin about….I believe it’s that little ol’ red light that iddn’ workin’ right’ — faint chuckle, long pause, as if to say, I’m not even sure all this is really worth going into — still, it may amuse you — ‘But I guess to play it by the rules, we oughta humor that little ol’ light…so we’re gonna take her down to about, oh, two or three hundred feet over the runway at Kennedy, and the folks down there on the ground are gonna see if they caint give us a visual inspection of those ol’ landin’ gears’ — with which he is obviously onintimate ol’-buddy terms, as with every other working part of this mighty ship—’ and if I’m right, they’re gonna tell us everything is copacetic all the way aroun’ an’ we’ll jes take her on in’.

“And, after a couple of low passes over the field, the voice returns: ‘Well, folks, those folks down there on the ground — it must be too early for ‘em or somethin’ — I ‘spect they still got the sleepers
in their eyes ‘cause they say they caint tell if those ol’ landin’ gears are all the way down or no. But, you know, up here in the cockpit we’re convinced they’re all the way down, so we’re jes gonna take her on in…And oh’… (I almost forgot) ,,,‘while we take a little swing out over the ocean an’ empty some of that surplus fuel we’re not gonna be needin’ anymore…that’s what you might be seein’ comin’ out of the wings — our lovely little ladies — if they’ll be so kind…they’re gonna go up and down the aisles and show you how we do what we call ‘assumin’ the position’ — another faint chuckle (We do this so often and it’s so much fun, we even have a funny little name for it)…and the stewardesses, a bit grimmer, by the looks of them, than that voice, start telling the passengers to take their glasses off and take the ballpoint pens and other sharp objects out of their pockets, and they show them the position, with the head lowered.

“While down on the field at Kennedy the little yellow emergency trucks start roaring across the field — and even though in your pounding heart and your sweating palms and your broiling brainpan you know this is a critical moment in your life, you still can’t quite bring yourself to believe it, because if it were…how could the captain, the man who knows the actual situation most intimately…how could he
keep on drawlin’ and chucklin’ and driftin’ and lollygaggin’ in that particular voice of his?

“Well!…who doesn’t know that voice! And who can forget it!—even after he is proved right and the emergency is over.

“That particular voice may sound vaguely Southern or Southwestern, but it is specifically Appalachian in origin. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s this up-hollow voice drifted down from on high, from over the high desert of California, down, down, down, from the upper reaches of the Brotherhood into all phases of American aviation…military pilots and then, soon, airline pilots, pilots from Maine and Massachusetts and the Dakotas and Oregon and everywhere else, began to talk in that poker-hollow West Virginia drawl, or as close to it as they could bend their native accents. It was the drawl of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.” [From Chapter 3, “The Right Stuff”]