|Kimi Raikkonen takes on Pete Conrad.|
As I was reading The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe yesterday, I realized I compared the wrong test pilot and astronaut with Kimi Raikkonen in Part 1. Pete Conrad, not Michael Collins, was the Navy test pilot who saw so many of his friends die during that a particularly bad stretch of his career. Conrad would go on to fly aboard Gemini 5, command Gemini 11, become the third man to walk on the moon on Apollo 12, and command the Skylab 2 repair mission. But before Pete Conrad could go into space, first he had to demonstrate (like Kimi Raikkonen has done in Formula One) that he had The Right Stuff.
Most of us, including Pete Conrad’s wife Jane, would wonder how he could keep his enthusiasm for such dangerous duty during that time. When Pete Conrad was stationed in Jacksonville, Florida, he found the crash remains of his good friend Bud Jennings in swampland near the airfield. Shortly thereafter, he lost two more pilots in his group. One died when a catapult lost pressure, and his fighter thundered off the aircraft carrier and into the sea.
Three months after Jennings’ death, Pete Conrad joined the Navy’s new test pilot program at Patuxent River in Maryland. Eleven deaths occurred in rapid succession. When one pilot slowed too much during landing, his A3J attack plane stalled, and he crashed. A week later, another group member in the same model plane experienced instrument malfunction. His plane corkscrewed down from eight hundred feet. Like his colleague, his body was burned beyond recognition. Another friend, flying a F-4 Phantom, dived from twenty thousand feet altitude into Chesapeake Bay. A pilot in the class behind Conrad, while performing test dives, was still making precise instrument readings when his plane plowed into the ground. And then there was his friend Ted Whelan, who experienced a structural failure during takeoff that made landing impossible. Whelan followed instructions, and the explosive charge ejected him from the plane. Rescue crews watched as the parachute rig plummeted down from the proper altitude, airspeed, and location, and smashed into the runway.
Yet Conrad, like his fellow pilots, kept his enthusiasm for flying. Every night they got together, and as they drank and caroused, they also talked through every accident. The one golden rule was that no one blamed the equipment. If the plane experienced a malfunction, a pilot with The Right Stuff should be able to compensate. A pilot had to follow procedure, which it appeared Bud Jennings didn’t. He took off with his cockpit open slightly, and carbon monoxide buildup made him pass out. The young pilot making instrument readings didn’t have enough experience: he should have paid more attention to his descent rate. And Ted Whelan, even if he hadn’t scoured the craft himself to find the structural defect, he obviously didn’t check out his parachute rig before that. Even having failed at that, Conrad and the others argued, Whelan must have had fifteen to twenty seconds in which he could have disengaged himself from the seat and opened his parachute manually. How could he just watch himself fall?
I may have gotten Pete Conrad’s name wrong in Part 1, but experience and attention to detail has given me the ability to compensate for that error. What leads me to believe that I can convince you in Part 3 that Kimi Raikkonen and Pete Conrad have similar mindsets? Because I’ve got The Right Stuff, that’s why!