The truth. It is a beautiful and terrible thing and must be treated with great caution.—J.K. Rowling
A common question I (and others in the business of flight test) often get is, “weren’t you afraid?” The simple answer—no, too busy fretting over the details of getting the job done right. And, if something does go wrong, to have the presence of mind to do the one right thing out of many possible options. It is Tom Wolfe and his haunting The Right Stuff, challenging your mettle.
I suppose you could reasonably conclude from the previous Chapter that I was a man of faith—either fearless or fearful. Or both, depending on circumstances. And if that vacillation isn’t exactly the definition of faith, then I’m guilty of being a fair-weather Christian. But wait! I submit I have some half-decent excuses. First, my Scottish parents did their best to bring me up Protestant while living in Scotland between the ages of five and fourteen. The trouble was, I hated Sundays because I was forced to wear a pair of God-awful, scratchy wool trousers. They drove me wild. Nomex flight suits would later produce the same reaction and, since my first Navy issue flight suit to this day, the first thing I do is line them with something more tolerable. Of course, by doing so, their fire-retardant properties are largely neutered, but that risk I handed back over to God and his saintly companions. It’s worked so far and has kept me sane.
Then when I married, I jumped tracks and joined the Catholic ranks. But this was the old school Catholic service—all of it in Latin—and despite considerable effort trying to feel the Lord’s presence, I may as well have been wandering lost in the desert. Despite my inability to connect with any of these religious institutions and the confusion caused by years of just not getting it, I did grow up harboring the sense of a benevolent presence, the peace that came with it, and a wary sense of good and evil.
Regardless of my awkward parochial ways, even as a young boy, I had an unshakeable belief that powers well beyond my ken —a little Scottish lingo—were with me, protecting me, or otherwise guiding my actions. Which is good, because I would frequently stumble and back myself into a corner that otherwise might have short-circuited this story had I not been yanked back to safety again and again.
The older me, no longer so innocent, still retains a non-denominational belief that life is a test, and we’re all here with the potential to fulfill some God-given purpose. The test is real, but I regret the destiny often missed because it must be earned, again by honoring that tricky, difficult, and often discouraging discipline of faith. Grace, Mercy, Favor, and Hope are also all tangled in life’s journey, but now I’m out of my depth, in deep water with all of the mysteries flowing silently out of sight.
Despite this little sermon, I’m no bible thumper and don’t attend church. So, there you have it. I would be fairly good company in a three-man foxhole, but once the trouble passed, I’d likely soon get back to my way of doing business.
However, as the SpaceShipOne saga unfolded and the program advanced, I would find myself desperately treading water for a breath of fresh air and the possible salvation that faith could bring.
Here’s an early example that portends much of how life would unfold for me.
Before Scotland, my father was a visiting professor at the University of Purdue and had been recruited to help push the state of the art that was then the beginnings of X-ray crystallography and mass spectrometers. He was, you might say, a member of the hi-brow crowd. We lived in modest university housing that redeemed itself by bordering a lush and heavily wooded golf course. That’s where I came along and, at an early age, was introduced to his interests and hobbies. Some of my earliest memories involve chasing model airplanes down the fairway in our backyard. Our favorite was a folding wing glider design that was launched like a rocket by a sturdy rubber band. After zooming its way up above the treetops, it would slow down enough to allow the wings to pop open and start its graceful, swooping return. These early exposures were uncannily close to my interests during the SpaceShipOne program: golf and rocket-like gliders with folding wings that floated gently back to earth.
So, all of this is great.
But more interesting is that at the back of our house was a dirt access road that paralleled the fairway just beyond it. And while this road had its share of potholes, there was a standout one. It was a hole about two and a half feet across and about as deep as I was old. At the curious age of 4, I can remember standing over that hole with considerable concern and confusion. Why was it there? What was its purpose? I was a bit mesmerized by it, but aware enough to view it as a warning and a threat.
Then one summer afternoon, a magnificent thunderstorm rolled through, and the rain poured down, flooding the course and everything around it. So, after the worst of it was over, I stepped out to investigate the small river that was previously the access road behind our house. I was drawn to find that hole. Why I’m not sure.
But I gingerly stepped through a torrent of water, trying to feel my way to the edge of what fascinates me. And then I disappeared.
Unable to touch bottom and not strong enough to climb out, I was in a precarious position that alarmed even my small brain. I still remember that I was going to drown in that hole. And I also remember, in those panicked moments, that it was all my fault.
That is until the hand of God reached down and pulled me out.
My father had seen me exit the back porch and, curious about what I might be up to, came to the door to watch. He had been as quick as a cat to grab me from that dilemma and pull me back to safety. And if I was a cat, there just went Cat Life (number one). Between the rest of my youth, the U.S. Navy, and Rotary Rocket, I would use up all nine, and then some, by the advent of Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne.