I was on the road for a few weeks and unable to check the latest Amazon Prime Video offerings. This is the first thing that popped up when I got home Wednesday night, and it appears to be right on time. It was 70 years ago today that Air Force Pilot Charles Elwood Yeager achieved supersonic flight in an aircraft in level flight. This was at Muroc Air Force Base (since renamed Edwards Air Force Base, after a test pilot who was killed) in California.
In 1979 Tom Wolfe published The Right Stuff, about about this and other exploits of post war test pilots, leading to the inception of Project Mercury, this country’s initial foray into manned space flight. The movie of the same name came out in 1983 and is now playing on Amazon. It is a gripping tale, told in a somewhat humorous vein. A bunch of stuff in the movie does not jibe with actual events.
Opening scenes show Air Force film of an an actual flight of the X-1 rocket-powered aircraft built by Bell Aircraft company. At Muroc the aircraft was slung under the belly of a B-29 bomber and dropped un-powered. The pilot initiated powered flight by igniting one or more of several rocket motors. Shown is a chase plane, included in the test to provide close-up observation of the happenings. In the movie this flight ended in loss of control and a fatal crash.
In fact I have no recollection, and I was unable to find any record, of any X-1 pilot killed in such an accident. Jack Woolams was the pilot in this sequence, but he was killed later in 1946 in an accident testing an air racer.
A fictional character in the movie is this angel of death, played by Royal Dano, here seen coming to the front door of a pilot’s home to tell his young wife she is now a widow. The angel appears recurrently in the film to remind viewers of the high mortality rate of this business.
There is a demon in the sky, and it exists at Mach one, the speed of sound, at which an aircraft meets up with it’s own presence in the air and catches the air unaware. Not well studied at the time was that shock waves developed on control surfaces, interacting with them and sometimes reversing their sense. Pilots lost control of the aircraft and several died within the region approaching the speed of sound.
As this story begins to unfold the United States Air Force was just a few weeks old, having been formed out of the Army Air Corps, and the new service teamed with leading scientific minds within this country and friendly nations to study and defeat the phenomenon. Whoever could travel faster than sound would have the upper hand in future air combat.
Civilian pilot Slick Goodlin (William Russ) offered to kill the beast, and his asking price was $150,000 in 1947 dollars (about $1.6 million today). In the movie, as in real life, the brass turned to military pilot Chuck Jeager (Sam Shepard), who willingly offered to do the deed. His fee was his Air Force pay, in the order of $250 per month.
Yeager is depicted in the movie as a cool dude and very focused, which is what he has been in real life. This scene shows Yeager on horse back, inspecting the X-1 as it idles on the desert with its rocket engines shooting out weak flames.
The critical flight is tomorrow, but Yeager takes a wild ride among the Joshua trees and is clothes-lined off his horse, breaking some ribs. He conceals the injury, but he will be unable to work the handle to seal the X-1’s one door. His long-time cohort, Jack Ridley (Levon Helm), comes up with a solution. As in real life, Ridley saws off part of a broom handle and gives it to Yeager to allow him to work the door handle with his opposite hand.
Key to the story and to real life was the relationship between the pilots and their wives. Yeager’s wife, Glennis, was by all accounts a looker, and as far as I can tell she was always on his team. He named the plane “Glamorous Glennis.” Here she sees him off on the mission that could kill him.
And the rest is history. In a shallow climb the X-1 shattered the sound barrier, sending a resounding boom across the desert, initially spooking a fearful ground crew. The celebration was immediate and unbridled. The movie shows Slick feeling mighty regretful he skipped on the opportunity of a lifetime.
And the race is on. Years go by, and a new breed of pilots converges on Edwards. Here Air Force pilot Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid) heads across the desert with Trudy (Pamela Reed) and the two kids. She is not happy about the prospect. For the officer corps, it is all about getting ahead. There exists no greater objective, and the wives tie themselves to what they hope will be a rising star. This was before women’s lib, back when a woman’s worth was her husband’s success. But for Cooper it is more than a chance for advancement. He wants to ride the wild wind.
Reality at Edwards is grim and grimmer. Housing and facilities are God awful, and the periodic columns of smoke marking yet another crashed airplane wear. She leaves with the kids and goes back to San Diego.
In the meantime the Cold War race is on, and the government is looking for astronaut candidates, with an eye to staying ahead of the Soviets. Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum are two NASA recruiters, come to Edwards to find people with the Right Stuff.
And candidates come from all over. Scott Glenn is Navy fighter pilot Alan Shepard, making carrier landings and cracking wise in imitation of comedian Bill Dana, in those days making a hit on TV with his character of a reluctant astronaut with a put-on Mexican accent.
The laughs die a cruel death as the candidates are subjected to inhuman stress in a campaign designed to winnow out the second best. Here Shepard nurses his left hand, which has been run through with a needle and electrocuted.
And seven are accepted for Project Mercury.
And preparations begin for the first space flight. Immediately the fliers are appalled by NASA scientists’ view that they are not pilots but test subjects. There is more. The pilots are out at Cape Canaveral and separated from their wives, and they are still military fliers, in every tradition. Marine pilot John Glenn, (Ed Harris) is more pure than the rest, and he objects to all the hanky and all the panky going on. Gus Grissom, (Fred Ward) turns the argument in another direction, saying the real problem is the lack of input being accepted from the pilots. They solidify behind the movement, and they march on stage in unison.
Producing the iconic image of the seven Mercury astronauts in a variation of the Imperial March.
And tension builds as the first launch approaches. It is a 100% news extravaganza, and all the big names are in. World famous newsman Eric Sevareid portrays himself.
And the first American to go into space (after Ham, the chimp) is Shepard. The movie, reflecting its lighter tone, lavishes on the true account of Shepard being stranded atop a Redstone rocket as the countdown continues to be delayed. His wife observes to the other wives that he had four cups of coffee before heading off to work. A continues series of cuts show coffee being poured, a water cooler bottle burping, a lawn sprinkler. Everything you don’t want when it’s been hours since a pee break. Here he is given permission wet his drawers before launch.
And there is tragedy. Grissom is second into space and almost dies when the capsule’s hatch blows, and the capsule sinks after landing in the ocean. Shepard was celebrated and feted after after being the first, but Grissom meets the harsh reality. The second to do something is an also-ran. Additionally, the scandal of the loss of the capsule drags on official largess, and the reward for Grissom and his wife is a week off at a seaside motel.
His wife is scornful. All the sacrifice she has made for her husband’s career has brought them to this.
The first two flights were sub-orbital, and John Glenn is slated for the first orbital flight. Again the official hoopla and the press coverage take front stage. Politicians weigh in, especially Vice President Lyndon Johnson. Launch day is drawing nigh, and Johnson wants some of the lime light. He insists on a meeting with Glenn’s wife Annie (Mary Jo Deschanel).Even as I noted at the time, she was a rare prize. Good looking, too and an object of Glenn’s affection since childhood. But with severe speech impediments, she was painfully shy. As Johnson insisted, Annie resisted, resulting in a confrontation between the VP and the astronaut. Glenn held his course, forcing the most powerful man in Texas to back down.
And he was off. I watched it live on TV, and never was there before a more dramatic moment.
There was almost tragedy, as an indicator light showed trouble, and the flight was trimmed to three orbits. Then comes the moment I celebrate, as the film features my first ship. CVS Randolph was the recovery ship. I briefly, but only briefly, considered that I should have stayed on the Randolf and re-upped my enlistment. It would have been a distant brush with glory.
This must be file footage, because by the time this movie came out the Randolph was ten years scrapped.
And the drama (for the film at least) draws down. Johnson throws a huge barbecue (presumably at the Astrodome, now extinct) to toast the seven Mercury astronauts. Texas is reaping the wind, as well, as manned space flight control is being transferred to Texas. The show featured Sally Rand (played by Peggy Davis), years past her prime.
The fact is that manned space flight was not the practical side of NASA’s mission, and that part was still being carried on by Yeager and others at Edwards. The film dramatizes Yeager’s record-breaking flight in a special version of the F-104.
The Soviets has just set a new altitude record for an airplane, and Yeager beat that before his engine flamed out. We see him ejecting and suffering burns to his face before gathering up his parachute and walking to meet the ambulance out on the desert come to search for him. There is no doubt this is the meaning of The Right Stuff.
The movie ends with Cooper’s last Project Mercury flight. He flew faster and higher than any person ever had.
The show was not over, however. The narrator (Ridley) tells what happened afterward. In 1967 Grissom and two newer astronauts died in an Apollo spacecraft fire at Cape Kennedy, (now Cape Canaveral again). I will follow up with my own recollections.
Deke Slayton was washed out of the Mercury program due to a heart condition. He later got it somewhat under control and flew as docking module pilot in an Apollo flight.
In the movie Alan Shepard boasts he will go to the moon, and he did on the Apollo program, becoming the fifth man to walk on the moon.
Yeager tells the story in his autobiography—Jack Ridley was killed in 1957 when the plane he was in hit a mountain ridge in Japan. A number of famous test pilots are featured in the film, one being is test pilot Iven Ienceloe. As a youngster I followed his exploits until he was killed in 1958. Joseph Walker was killed when his F-104 chase plane collided with a North American XB-70 Valkyrie while staging a publicity photo shoot.
By all accounts, Yeager was an extraordinary flier. He entered the Army as a private during World War Two, and wound up with a warrant commission flying P-51s. Again from his biography, once over Germany he found himself alone and was advised over the radio of enemy aircraft in his area. He asked if they were the ones off to the (north?), and somebody remarked these were 50 miles away. He and Ridley hunted elk in P-38s, and he is noted for being able to follow the path if his bullets to the target. On 12 October 1944 he downed five enemy aircraft in a single mission.
He was shot down over occupied France and hidden out by the Resistance. I recall one of the Resistance fighters asked if he thought the Allies would win the war, and Yeager replied they surely would. The Frenchie thought that was cheeky, coming from a man on the run for his life in enemy territory. I recall reading this and thinking it would be affirmative even coming from somebody who had been shot down and killed.
He fled to neutral Spain with another flier, and the Germans caught up with then in the mountains along the border when they holed up in a mountain cabin and stupidly left their shoes outside the door. The two went out the back window when the Germans came through the door, shooting Yeager’s companion. Yeager placed the wounded man on a ice-covered road and sent him sliding toward freedom, never finding out what became of him.
Yeager made it back to his command and rejoined the fight, but only after the Germans were driven out of France. Higher ups did not want to risk having Yeager shot down again and being forced to give up those who rescued him.
John Glenn left the Project Mercury shortly after his flight and became a Democratic senator representing his home state of Ohio. Late in life, as a senator, he went to space again in the Shuttle. And now they are all dead. Glenn died last December, the last to die.
Except Yeager. He stayed in the Air Force and even flew missions in a Canberra bomber in Vietnam. Seventy years after becoming the first man to fly faster than sound, Chuck Yeager lives on. This is likely Yeager, playing a cameo role in the movie as a bartender, tacking up the photo of a newly-dead pilot in Pancho Barnes‘ Happy Bottom Riding Club, out in the desert.
Anachronisms there are. The scenes showing Jack Ridley with Yeager as he prepares for his altitude record flight. The problem is, these flights with F-104 prototypes took place in the early 1960s, years after Ridley’s death. The films depicts the term “A-OK” being bandied about. It did not enter the public lexicon until NASA PR man Shorty Powers used it during Shepard’s May 1961 flight, telling us all Shepard reported everything A-OK. Shepard never said that.
Glennis died on 1990. This will be Chuck’s last decade anniversary. Nobody has ever been the first to fly faster than sound and lived 80 years to tell about it.