There’s a great scene (one of several, actually) in the movie The Right Stuff. Chuck Yeager, the Air Force test pilot who earlier in the movie had become the first man to travel faster than the speed of sound, was now test-flying a new fighter jet, the F-104 Starfighter, to determine its altitude ceiling and to possibly break the high-altitude record currently held by the Russians. The flight plan called for Yeager to climb as high as he could, using the jet’s afterburner until it’s fuel was exhausted. At that point he would shut down the main engine (to prevent overheating and to conserve fuel in the main tanks) then light off an auxiliary booster rocket which would provide the thrust for the remainder of the flight. Once that, too, was exhausted—hopefully at an altitude higher than any man had thus far traveled—Yeager was supposed to force the nose of the Starfighter over into a dive and hold it there until sufficient air was flowing through the main engine to permit an in-flight restart. Then he’d simply fly the jet back to base.
Yeager’s plane reaches 104,000 feet, still short of the record. Of course, Yeager is disappointed, but undaunted. He figures he’ll return to base and try again another day. But something goes wrong. The mechanism which is supposed to cause the nose of the aircraft to drop, and which will in turn allow critical airflow through the engine’s intake for restart, fails in the too-thin air of the upper atmosphere. The plane begins to fall in what is called a steady-state flat spin. The lack of airflow (the relative air is hitting the plane perpendicularly) renders the jet’s monstrous engine, as well as the various control systems which depend on it, useless.
As the plane falls, spinning around “like a length of pipe in the sky,” Yeager tries desperately to pull it out of the spin, to no avail. He finally ejects from the crippled plane after falling nearly 100,000 feet—only to be nearly killed when his ejection seat, still gushing flaming rocket propellant, crashes into him while he hangs in his parachute.
Yeager hits the ground, landing in desert mesquite, then manages to stand up, amazed he’s still alive. But he’s mightily injured, with third and second-degree burns to his face and one hand. Blood is caked in a baked mass over his left eye. Nevertheless, he starts walking, carrying his rolled-up parachute and his flight helmet. Soon he is on the runway of Edwards Air Force Base, from where he’d taken off just a short time earlier.
At the other end of the runway, a rescue vehicle with two men inside speeds toward Yeager, who walks resolutely out of a cloud of smoke and burning wreckage of airplane (a little Hollywood embellishment). The driver of the vehicle points through the windscreen. “Sir,” he says, “is that a man?” “You’re damn right, it is!” says the other rescuer.
Okay, it’s a long story with a short punch line, but the gist of the episode is this: Chuck Yeager is a real man. And he proves this unequivocally in the film by having the balls to ride a shuddering hunk of metal into the nether reaches of the atmosphere, thence to survive the return to earth when everything goes to hell in a hand basket and tries to take him with it. It’s a great story. I remember cheering at the end of the movie. And while I drove back that night from Fresno, California down to the Lemoore Naval Air Station, where I was myself actively pursuing a career in flying as a carrier jet pilot, I couldn’t help feeling just a little smug, being a part of that same small community of “real men.”
Alas, $#!+ happens. (What was that saying from the Bible—”pride goeth before a fall?”) Less than a year later, I found myself suddenly, permanently, “out of the cockpit.” The reasons don’t matter, at least for now. What did matter was how it affected me. I was angry, of course. But I was also scared. The way I saw it, I’d been stripped of a critical facet of my identity: my manhood. The sense of loss was palpable, almost physical. When I finally said goodbye to the Navy several months later and drove away to a non-flying future in the civilian world, I felt as if I’d been told to check my balls at the gate. I’d no longer be needing them.
The obvious question that was forming in my mind, and which I would carry with me unanswered for the next twenty-five years, was this: if, as I seemed to believe, I was no longer a real man, then what was I? What, exactly, is a real man? And, finally, how does an otherwise ordinary male achieve that illustrious state?
More to come. I welcome your comments here, and in the forum.