We continue to rave about Joshua Cooper Ramo’s No Visible Horizon. Ramo was TIME magazine’s senior editor, foreign editor and assistant managing editor. He converted from casual aerobatics to a serious attempt on a top 10 finish in US National Aerobatic Championship.
No Visible Horizon is meditative worship of the seduction of extreme flying. It is the aerial equivalent of Le Milieu Divin, that divine union of man and God on the plane of perfection, written by Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin.
The mythical Jonathan Livingston Seagull exceeded the limits of his body in order to transform himself into the very spirit of perfect flight — “died and went to pilot heaven”, in ground-bound pedestrian terms. Chardin himself was excommunicated by the institutional Catholic church for his heretical proposal that man could be “one with God” through the pursuit of perfection.
Like them, Ramo’s aerobatic pilgrims laid themselves on the altar of “the world’s most dangerous sport,” to achieve that elusive nirvana of a perfect flight.
Neil Williams was a British test pilot. Deep expertise on aerodynamics, a conservative approach to tackling the unknown, and the desire to probe around limits — these drive test pilots on pilgrimages to new worlds. They are not daredevils. They are explorers.
Ramo writes of a famous Neil Williams story — entirely true — of a flight in 1970. The Zlin 526 is a sleek airplane so revolutionary that it “had jolted the flying world at the 1964 World Aerobatic Championships”.
Williams took it for a test flight. The whole Eton-Oxford routine. Back in a minute, chaps. He’s pulling into a tight loop when he hears a bang and sees his left wing folding up toward the cockpit in the same way you might close your upraised palm into a fist.
His little Czech masterpiece has a cancer. The spar is the long metal stick that holds the wing to the airplane, and if you punched it enough times, the spar began to fold. Williams’s Zlin had been flying for years. The cancer was buried deep inside the wing.
Williams starts to think really fast. Actually thinking would be too slow. So he fires off on instinct alone, pure faith. He rolls the plane inverted and snaps the wing out like a one-way hinge. Imagine snapping out a carpet or sheet. The wing cracks back into position just as he is finally upside down.
Williams takes a deep breath. Weird, to be sure, but probably salvageable. He tries to roll upright and … the wing starts to fold again. So he rolls inverted again and begins thinking. No parachute. Routine flight, and all that. The engine hiccups. Running out of gas.
As the engine begins to sputter, Williams starts an approach to landing at the airfield. Upside down. Turns into his final approach leg, upside down, and, so low that he actually draws one wingtip through the grass, he fast rolls the airplane back upright at the last possible moment and lands as the wing folds up. And walks away. He has pulled off a miracle at the very last second.
You could imagine pilots flocking to that little line in the grass, the leaves still wingbrushed, like Hajjis to Mecca or pilgrims to some sighting of the Virgin Mary. That little line in the grass was it, they would say to each other, the visible border between miracle and martyrdom. The physical proof of man’s faith.
There is an elegantly written “Zlin Wing Failure Report” on the web, here. Authored by Neil Williams. Dry irony. The whole Eton-Oxford routine.
Six years later Williams flew a WWII bomber head on into a mountain in Spain in bad weather, killing everyone on board, including his wife.
Posted from Hua Hin, Thailand, December 5, 2009
Next: Kirby Chambliss
All images are from the excellent blog, Test & Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers, by Neil Corbett of Scotland.