My family is the center and passion of my life but marksmanship and aviation occupy any time which may be left over.
The flying and shooting worlds are similar in that they are populated with folks driven to become the best at what they do. In order to so one must have an absolute belief in an ability to be the best riflemen or aviator and to put in the hard, relentless, tedious, and grinding work necessary.
The most important attribute a rifleman needs to reach the top step of the podium is the will to win, which includes determination and dedication. A written plan directs the search for the best possible rifle and ammunition combination. Next it moves on to the constant refinement of position and hold as one focuses on process. When all this comes together the road to the top is much smoother.
For an aviator, the road to the top begins with about eight to ten hours of dual instruction followed by being told to taxi to the ramp. Thinking the lesson is over you are surprised when the instructor unclips his seatbelt, hops out, tells you to take it around the patch three times, and meet him in the pilots’ lounge after you tie the plane down. The next 30 minutes will be with you forever, so relax, be confident, and fly the airplane. When your logbook is endorsed you know you can stand in front of the mirror and the best pilot you ever saw will be looking back at you.
This is illustrated in the movie The Right Stuff with a running joke based on an apocryphally question posed to Gordon Cooper, the last Mercury astronaut. Cooper played by Dennis Quaid, was asked, “Who’s the best pilot you’ve ever saw?”
In a moment of unguarded subconscious truthful contemplation, he murmurs, “Who is the best pilot I ever saw? I’ll tell you. I’ve seen a lot of them, and most were pictures on a wall back at some place that doesn’t even exist anymore. Some of them are right here in this room. And some of them are…there still out there somewhere , doing what they always do… But there was…one pilot I once saw who I think truly did have the right stuff….”
Stopping in mid-sentence, as his overweening pilot’s ego snapped him out of his reverie and back to the present moment, he replied with a grin, “Who is the best pilot I ever saw? Well you’re looking at him.”
And he may have been right. Cooper’s parents owned a Command-Aire 3C3 biplane and he unofficially soloed when he was 12 years old. Four years later he reached the minimum age required for a pilot’s credential and logged his solo in a Piper J-3 Cub. Cooper was a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps cadet in college and upon graduation converted his Army commission as a second lieutenant to the newly formed US Air Force. He completed undergraduate flight training and was awarded his wings in 1950.
Selected as one of the first seven astronauts he flew the final Mercury program mission aboard Faith 7 on May 14, 1963. He flew longer, 34 hours, 19 minutes and 45 seconds than any American to date. In 22 orbits around the Earth he became the first American to spend an entire day in space, the first to sleep in space, and the last NASA astronaut to go into space alone.
Mercury capsules were designed for fully automatic control, causing noted test pilot Chuck Yeager to brand the astronauts “Spam in a can.” Equipment failures aboard Faith 7 forced Cooper to fly the spacecraft through reentry manually. In the face of disaster, he calmly guided his spacecraft to a successful splashdown just four miles from the recovery ship USS Kearsarge, the most accurate landing of any Mercury mission. Cooper later wrote. "My electronics were shot, and a pilothad the stick” So, with all of that behind him, for a brief moment, Gordo Cooper became the greatest pilot anyone had ever seen.
In his book, The Right Stuff, about the pilots engaged in U.S. postwar research with experimental rocket-powered, high-speed aircraft and the Project Mercury astronauts, Tom Wolfe describes, “… a seemingly infinite series of tests. … a dizzy progression of steps and ledges, a ziggurat, a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even – ultimately, God willing, one day – that you might be able to join that special few at the very top… the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself.”
After more than 60 years of shooting and a half of a century since my first solo I sit firmly at the base of the pyramid in both endeavors, my neck aching from being bent back looking upward at those who have climbed higher. What makes the ache bearable is the fact that I have been lucky enough to be associated with so many great shooters and pilots who have ascended higher than I in their search for Arete.
Arete, as the Greeks called the search for excellence, and, as my philosopher brother Steve would remind me, is the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one’s full potential.
If you put in the necessary hard work, have reached your full potential, and are recognized by your peers as a seeker of Arete you have won the Gold Medal, even if you haven’t been able to scramble the top of the pyramid.