Military test pilots are a rare breed, undertaking the responsibility of flying new aircraft to their design limits . . . and then beyond. In his classic book The Right Stuff Tom Wolfe puts it this way:
A career in flying was like climbing one of those ancient Babylonian pyramids made up of a dizzy progression of steps and ledges, a ziggurat, a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even–ultimately, God willing, one day–that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men’s eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself.
Here are six of those who over their test pilot careers proved they were badasses with ample amounts of the Right Stuff:
1. Jimmy Doolittle
Jimmy Doolittle felt the test pilot itch very early in his life. At age 15, he built a glider, jumped off a cliff, and crashed. He stuck the pieces back together and tried again. The second crash was worse, and when he came to rest there was nothing left to salvage.
In 1922, Doolittle made a solo crossing of the continental United States in a de Havilland DH-4 in under 24 hours. Two years later, he performed the first outside loop in a Curtiss Hawk. In 1929, he flew from takeoff to landing while referring only to instruments — a feat The New York Times called “the greatest single step in safety.”
During World War II Doolittle was sent off to train crews for a mysterious mission, and he ended up leading the entire effort. On April 18, 1942, 15 B-25s launched from the USS Hornet and bombed Tokyo. Most ditched off the Chinese coast or crashed; other crew members had bailed out, including Doolittle. Though he was crushed by what he called his “failure,” Doolittle was awarded the title Brigadier General and a Congressional Medal of Honor, which, he confided to General Henry “Hap” Arnold, he would spend the rest of his life earning.
2. Bob Hoover
After his Spitfire was shot down by a Focke-Wulf 190 over the Mediterranean in 1944, Hoover was captured and spent 16 months in the Stalag Luft 1 prison in Barth, Germany. He eventually escaped, stole a Fw 190 (which, of course, he had never piloted), and flew to safety in Holland.
After the war Hoover signed up to serve as an Army Air Forces test pilot, flying captured German and Japanese aircraft. He befriended Chuck Yeager and eventually became Yeager’s backup pilot in the Bell X-1 program. He flew chase in a Lockheed P-80 when Yeager first exceeded Mach 1.
Hoover moved on to North American Aviation, where he test-flew the T-28 Trojan, FJ-2 Fury, AJ-1 Savage, F-86 Sabre, and F-100 Super Sabre, and in the mid-1950s he began flying North American aircraft, both civil and military, at airshows. Jimmy Doolittle called Hoover “the greatest stick-and-rudder man who ever lived.”
3. Chuck Yeager
As a young Army Air Forces pilot in training, Yeager had to overcome airsickness before he went on to down 12 German fighters, including a Messerschmitt 262, the first jet fighter. After the war, still in the AAF, he trained as a test pilot at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, where he got to fly the United States’ first jet fighter, the Bell P-59.
Yeager then went to Muroc Field in California, where Larry Bell introduced him and fellow test pilot Bob Hoover to the Bell XS-1. On October 14, 1947, ignoring the pain of two cracked ribs, Yeager reached Mach 1.07. “There was no ride ever in the world like that one!” he later wrote. The aircraft accelerated so rapidly that when the landing gear was retracted, an actuating rod snapped and the wing flaps blew off.
He test piloted the Douglas X-3, Northrop X-4, and Bell X-5, as well as the prototype for the Boeing B-47 swept-wing jet bomber. And on one December day in 1953, he tried to coax an X-1A to Mach 2.3 to break Scott Crossfield’s Mach 2 record attained in the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket. At 80,000 feet and Mach 2.4, the nose yawed, a wing rose, and the X-1A went out of control. He managed to recover the airplane at 25,000 feet.
Yeager was sent to Okinawa in 1954 to test a Soviet MiG-15 that a North Korean had used to defect. When he stopped test-flying that year, he had logged 10,000 hours in 180 types of military aircraft.
4. Scott Crossfield
In 1950 former Navy fighter pilot Scott Crossfield was hired by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and sent to Edwards Air Force Base in California to fly the world’s hottest X-planes, including the X-1, the tail-less Northrop X-4, the Douglas D-558-I Skystreak and D-558-II Skyrocket, the Convair XF-92A and the Bell X-5. He made 100 rocket-plane flights in all.
On November 20, 1953, he took the D-558-II to Mach 2.04, becoming the first pilot to fly at twice the speed of sound.
He gained a reputation as a pilot whose flights were jinxed: On his first X-4 flight, he lost both engines; in the Skyrocket, he flamed out; the windshield iced over in the X-1. After a deadstick landing in a North American F-100, he lost hydraulic pressure and the Super Sabre slammed into a hangar wall, which caused Chuck Yeager to proclaim: “The sonic wall was mine; the hangar wall was Crossfield’s.”
In 1955, he quit NACA and started flying the sinister-looking X-15. Crossfield made the first eight flights of the X-15, learning its idiosyncrasies, and logged another six after NASA and Air Force pilots joined the program.
On his fourth X-15 flight, the fuselage buckled right behind the cockpit on landing. But his most serious mishap happened on the ground while testing the XLR-99 engine in June 1960.
“I put the throttle in the stowed position and pressed the reset switch,” Crossfield wrote in his autobiography Always Another Dawn. “It was like pushing the plunger on a dynamite detonator. X-15 number three blew up with incredible force.” Fire engines rushed to extinguish the blaze, and Crossfield was extracted from the cockpit.
“The only casualty was the crease in my trousers,” he told reporters. “The firemen got them wet when they sprayed the airplane with water. I pictured the headline: ‘Space Ship Explodes; Pilot Wets Pants.'”
5. Neil Armstrong
Neil Armstrong’s path to being the first man on the moon was a somewhat circuitous one. He entered Navy flight training right out of high school and wound up flying 78 missions over Korea. He left active duty at age 22 and went to college at Purdue where he earned an engineering degree that, in turn, landed him a job as an experimental research test pilot stationed at Edward Air Force Base.
Armstrong made seven flights in the X-15 from November 1960 to July 1962, reaching a top altitude of 207,500 feet and a top speed of Mach 5.74. He left the Dryden Flight Research Center with a total of 2,400 flying hours. During his test pilot career, he flew more than 200 different models of aircraft.
Then the real work began. In 1958, he was selected for the U.S. Air Force’s Man In Space Soonest program. In November 1960, Armstrong was chosen as part of the pilot consultant group for the X-20 Dyna-Soar, a military space plane under development by Boeing for the U.S. Air Force, and on March 15, 1962, he was selected by the U.S. Air Force as one of seven pilot-engineers who would fly the space plane when it got off the design board.
In the months after the announcement that applications were being sought for the second group of NASA astronauts, Armstrong became more and more excited about the prospects of both the Apollo program and of investigating a new aeronautical environment. Armstrong’s astronaut application arrived about a week past the June 1, 1962, deadline. Dick Day, with whom Armstrong had worked closely at Edwards, saw the late arrival of the application and slipped it into the pile before anyone noticed.
Astronaut Deke Slayton called Armstrong on September 13, 1962, and asked whether he would be interested in joining the NASA Astronaut Corps as part of what the press dubbed “the New Nine”; without hesitation, Armstrong said yes, which made him the first (technically) civilian astronaut.
Armstrong was ultimately given the nod to lead the Apollo 11 mission because he was generally regarded as the guy with the most analytical mind and coolest under pressure among the astronauts.
6. John Glenn
John Glenn is best known as the first American astronaut to orbit the earth, but before he was one of the Mercury 7 he was a test pilot. Then-Major Glenn flew an F8U-1P Crusader (BuNo 144608) from NAS Los Alamitos, California nonstop to NAS Floyd Bennett Field, New York at a record speed of 725.55 mph. The flight, which involved Glenn refueling from airborne tankers at waypoints across the country — the only times he pulled the power out of afterburner (besides his final approach to landing) — lasted just three hours, 23 minutes and 8.4 seconds, and that beat the previous record holder (an F-100F Super Sabre) by 15 minutes.
The purpose of the Project Bullet was to prove that the Pratt Whitney J-57 engine could tolerate an extended period at combat power – full afterburner – without damage. After the flight, Pratt Whitney engineers disassembled the J-57 and, based on their examination, determined that the engine could perform in extended combat situations. Accordingly, all power limitations on J-57s were lifted from that day forward.
(An interesting side note is that the Crusader that Glenn used for Project Bullet was reclaimed from the “Boneyard” at Davis-Monthan AFB and made into a Navy RF-8G reconnaissance aircraft. Following a photo mission over North Vietnam in December of 1972, the jet was lost while trying to land aboard the USS Oriskany operating in the Gulf of Tonkin. The pilot ejected and survived.)