Tom Wolfe Bookended


I got an odd email from a reader and then Tom Wolfe died. There’s no cause and effect, but the two have a connection.

All of us in aviation will remember Tom Wolfe for his iconic book about test pilots and the early space program, The Right Stuff. Except it really wasn’t about either of those, but about the normal human fear of both. Right in his forward for the book, Wolfe said as much. He was curious to understand how men could put themselves atop a potentially explosive rocket and urge someone to light the fuse.

Wolfe was uniquely positioned in both time and predilection to write such a thing. It was the mid-1970s and having come from a newspaper background, Wolfe understood the value of eyes-on reporting and was an early practitioner of what we knew then as “new journalism.” Heavily laced with interpretation and with vivid descriptions cast in long strings of colorful adjectives, it combined the novelist’s art with the nonfiction writer’s eye for essential detail. In a single chapter, Wolfe used more exclamation points than I have in an entire career of writing. He is single-handedly responsible for placing the phrase “pushing the outside of the envelope” into the common vernacular.

He also made Chuck Yeager both a household name and a rich man. In 1979, Esquire published an excerpt from the book that was essentially a Yeager profile. As an aviation-obsessed kid, I knew about Yeager, because I had read Across the High Frontier, but the profile—and the book—refreshed my knowledge and textured the myth with significant human detail.

This reinforced a belief that the public already had, that being that pilots in general, and especially test pilots, were steely eyed single-combat warriors who never knew fear and, if they did, would certainly never talk about it. And thus, we have the calm voice on the radio and an inescapable need bordering on psychosis for the working press to write a headline such as “Hero Pilot Lands Disabled Plane.” Tom Wolfe didn’t invent this; he merely popularized it for a new audience at a time when people still read books instead of browsing a website for 10-second diversions from people who write blogs. (This a two-minute blog; try to endure.)

And now to the email, which came following the weekend’s interview with the crew of Southwest 1380, after a fractured fan blade tanked an engine and caused debris to pierce the cabin. “If I understood him correctly,” the reader said, “the FO said ‘it was very disorienting and he couldn’t make heads or tails of what was going on.’ Can you believe he said that on national TV? What do you think the airline will have to say about that? If I were the airline, I certainly would not want the public to know we had a pilot who reacted that way in an emergency.”

I found this reaction to FO Darren Ellisor’s honest assessment of the accident to be curious. In a sense, Ellisor had violated the very code Wolfe spent an entire book explaining, that being if you had fear or doubt, never admit it. Never reveal that you weren’t entirely in control at all times and knew exactly what to do next.

Personally, I found his candor refreshing because it chips away at the myth Wolfe erected in The Right Stuff, that pilots are somehow superhumans incapable of being confused or, admit it, scared. I realize that people who are afraid of flying—and given the safety record these days, no one should be—wish to soothe themselves with the belief that the pilots upfront are cool customers capable of handling any and all that’s thrown at them. I think the same, but I don’t care if they’re scared and admit it, as long as they feather the correct engine, so to speak. When confronted with an explosive decompression, disorientation is to be expected. But it doesn’t last. You get over it and do what needs to be done.

Yeah, I know, I’m a contrarian on this. But I’ve always felt that a sophisticated aviation reader—such as those who populate AVweb’s audience—can appreciate the mythical heroism Wolfe created The Right Stuff simply for its masterful entertainment value without actually buying into it. Pilots are better served by understanding reality as it exists, not as it’s described in a beloved best-seller. I know the public needs heroes and even in aviation, we like to put the people in the pointy end on pedestals. Fair enough, but not all of us have to pander to that. I’m just doing my bit not to.