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Comments by YACCS
Friday, April 21, 2006

Test pilot dies in crash

Scott Crossfield

Test Pilot Scott Crossfield Killed in Crash

By DANIEL YEE, Associated Press Writer 2 hours, 39 minutes ago

RANGER, Ga. - Scott Crossfield, the hotshot test pilot and aircraft designer who in 1953 became the first man to fly at twice the speed of sound, was killed in the crash of his small plane, authorities said Thursday. He was 84.

Crossfield's body was found in the wreckage Thursday in the mountains about 50 miles northwest of Atlanta, a day after the single-engine plane he was piloting dropped off radar screens on a flight from Alabama to Virginia. There were thunderstorms in the area at the time.

The cause of the crash was under investigation. Crossfield was believed to be the only person aboard.

During the 1950s, Crossfield embodied what came to be called "the right stuff," dueling the better-known Chuck Yeager for supremacy among America's Cold War test pilots. Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947; only weeks after Crossfield reached Mach 2, or twice the speed of sound, Yeager outdid him.

Yeager, reached at his home in California, said he was "sure sorry to hear" about Crossfield's death, but he wondered whether the pilot's penchant for taking risks might have been his undoing.

Crossfield was flying "in very bad weather," Yeager noted.

During their days as test pilots, he said Crossfield "being a civilian, had a lot more freedom than we did, as military guys. ... Sometimes he exceeded his capability and got in trouble."

Asked for an example, the 83-year-old Yeager said: "Flying in weather that he should have never been in."

Yeah, the weather in Atlanta sucked yesterday, Crazy Nancy Grace couldn't get back to New York. That and a security alert.

Yeager wasn't all that sentimental, but then I guess you can only escape the odds for so long.

But history is a funny thing. Before The Right Stuff was written, the feats of Yeager and Crossfield were obscured by the Apollo program. Only Air Force pilots knew who these guys were. They were famous in the late 1940's, but by 1961, what they did was history, long forgotten by the people who went into space.

Ironically, the astronauts were not regarded as good pilots, while people like Yeager, Crossfield, and Yeager's lifelong friend, Bud Anderson, who shot down three ME-109's in one day, were legends for their skill as pilots. Yeager's West Virginia drawl was imitated by generations of pilots. The exception was John Glenn, who was Ted Williams wingman in Korea. But for the most part, the astronauts were chose for their education and suitability as test subjects, not their flying skills.

Yeager and Anderson went back to commanding Air Force squadrons during the height of Apollo while Crossfield kept testing planes. They labored in obscurity while Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

So how did the story change? Two people, Tom Wolfe and Philip Kaufman. Wolfe wrote the book the Right Stuff, and Kaufman, who has a masters in history, directed the movie. When it was released in 1984, people thought it would boost John Glenn into the White House. Except he wasn't the focus of the movie. I like Ed Harris fine, he did a great job in the film playing Glenn, but Sam Shepard, who looks nothing like Chuck Yeager, did a better job. Critics said if Yeager had been running for office, he'd have won.

Why? Because Glenn was a scold in the film and Shepard was a likeable wildman.

But what the movie did was bring alive the era of exploring flight in human terms. It was one of the last movies of that kind to be made with models and not computer aided graphics. It was done before ILM owned Hollywood and computers could make lions and trees talk. But what the movie did was take the shine off of the first astronauts and explained who got them there. The climax of the movie doesn't take place in space, but with Yeager escaping a burning F-104 Starfighter he took up to 100,000 feet and lost control of. At the end of the movie, you have a half burned Yeager walking across the desert with his parachute in his hand. In reality, Yeager didn't walk anywhere, he was hospitalized for a while, but as a cinematic image, you couldn't have a much better one.

History is not a static thing, it changes over the years, and how people perceive it over the years. The story of the test pilots was a footnote until a movie made it more than that.

posted by Steve @ 1:58:00 AM

1:58:00 AM

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