Tom Wolfe's book made 'The Right Stuff' famous and then the film rocketed the phrase and the concept to an entirely new level. It was meant to describe that intangible quality that separates elite aviators from those of us that sit back in the pack. Strangely enough, as every year passes I find the 'right stuff' increasingly difficult to recognise and virtually impossible to identify.
Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Despite the Hollywood slant on the events surrounding the breaking of the sound barrier and the Mercury astronauts, it was exciting entertainment and great viewing. It brought the story home to a generation that were virtually ignorant of the events that transpired as man pushed the limits of flight.
Still the right stuff sat uncomfortably with me. A shared many a conversation with fighter pilots of that same era and the vast majority ranked luck as the prime requirement for success. In combat and in flying the first generation of jet fighters, they had a litany of tales of how they almost broke their necks through ignorance and stupidity. They watched good friends make the same mistakes, only to leave a crater in some remote field.
Furthermore, they would recount fellow pilots who had the qualities that were perceived as the right stuff. They were 'natural' pilots with superior stick-and-rudder skills and unflappable confidence. They earned top marks and won the trophies and accolades and were held in envy by their peers. Yet as these old, greying pilots continued to chat, they would recall how a good many of these wonderful pilots had actually died in the air.
They had been killed pushing on in bad weather, executing a low level manoeuvre that just didn't work or taking the aircraft a little further than the designers had seen as prudent. They offered over confidence and complacency as factors in the demise, but as always, bad luck played its hand too.
These old pilots were never critical of their talented comrades who had died doing what they loved. Sometimes pause as if for the first time they could see a link between ability and mortality. Perhaps they would shrug their shoulders or raise an eyebrow, but little more. After all, it was a dangerous vocation back then.
The majority if these ageing aviators held themselves in far less regard. "I was very average" and "I got through by the skin of my teeth" were common expressions from this generation of pilots who had literally been there and done that. They saw themselves as fortunate survivors rather than 'aces' and to me this seemed strange.
Perhaps the right stuff lay more in recognising the limits than pushing them. These gentlemen had flown hundreds of combat sorties between them and been amongst the first to fly jets. They had done everything that could be asked of them and survived and yet all they saw in the mirror was an average pilot with luck on his side.
When I consider the modern generation of pilots that I have flown with, I find common ground with these pilots of the past. The demographic of air crew is fairly standard and recruiting processes look to maintain that. A few individuals step out of the box, but generally speaking there is similarity amongst the breed that is pulled more closely together by standard operating procedures in a disciplined workplace. There are gifted pilots, but a greater number are average and live from one simulator check to the next. They are always there own toughest critic and lament how they could have flown so much better. In their eyes they just get by, it's always the other guy that has the right stuff.
To be a pilot you don't need to be special, just the right sort of person for the job. A degree of flying ability is required, but so too is a level of proficiency in interfacing with technology and interacting with other people. Rather than possessing one single quality, it is about a balance of a few. It's about keeping them in proportion and shifting them in priority as the situation dictates at the time.
Being strong in one area and weak in another is far from an ideal situation. The best manipulative pilot needs to be able to master the automation and the pilot who plays the technology like a keyboard must also know when it is time to hand fly the aeroplane. And as good as they are in either situation they must be able to work with those around them.
Fellow pilots, cabin crew, engineers and ground staff are all valued components in the complex aviation cycle. Drawing upon these valuable resources and communicating effectively across the board can be as challenging as any skill a pilot may need and as critical as any need they may encounter.
Reflecting upon the wealth of knowledge of experienced aviators that I have known and my own time aloft, I am still no closer to truly understanding the right stuff. I've always perceived it as an intangible quality, so perhaps I am destined to never get any closer to the heart of the matter. Regardless, I don't believe that it is a single quality. I think it is a blend of traits that are brought to the fore and tucked away as needed.
The transition from one skill to another, or their co-existence is a seamless affair. It is a stealthy harmony that underpins the more obvious basic skill sets that push the aircraft about the sky The right stuff? I honestly don't know. Perhaps it's really more about possessing the right mix.