Frank Borman wasn't fearless — no good pilot was. But most of the fear he had started out with was shaken out of him on the day in 1961 when he nearly died in the skies over Edwards Air Force Base, in southern California. Death while flying was not Borman's plan, any more than it was the plan of the pilots who did die that way in that place at around that time. But in the business of test-flying jets, it was inevitable that every now and then one of them would fly straight into disaster, tumble out of the sky, and, to use the no-big-deal phrasing preferred by test pilots, make a hole in the ground.
Borman knew the odds as well as anyone, but he had been angling for Edwards for a long time, ever since his West Point graduation in 1950. Like most of the men flying here, he had not traveled a direct route to the skillet of the California desert. He had jumped from post to post — Nevada, Georgia, Ohio, the Philippines — all with his young wife, Susan, by his side. She had agreed to marry him straight out of the military academy and had known in advance the peripatetic life of a young Air Force pilot, though she hadn't fully understood that it would be quite that peripatetic.
Still, Edwards was what Borman wanted, and so Edwards was what Susan wanted. When he had applied for the transfer from the Philippines to California in 1960, he'd known he would be up against ferocious competition, with no guarantee that he'd even make it to the top tier of applicants, much less become one of the fliers selected. When he did get the transfer, he was thrilled at the news, though it wouldn't serve him well to look thrilled when he arrived in California. The man who made the Edwards flight assignments was Chuck Yeager, the thirty-seven-year-old lieutenant colonel and World War II fighter pilot who had long caused military fliers to feel equal measures of inspiration and terror.
Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier, in a Bell X-1 rocket plane in 1947, had been famous even before achieving that long-elusive feat. Shot down over France in 1944 during his eighth combat mission, he was taken prisoner and placed in a POW camp. He escaped just two months later, quickly rejoined his squadron in England, and, six months after that, scored the fighter pilot's coveted ace-in-a-day distinction, shooting down five enemy planes in a single mission. There wasn't much the young hot dogs he had brought to Edwards could do to impress him.
"There's no such thing as a natural-born pilot," he would tell the men who believed they were exactly that. "If you can walk away from a landing, it's a good landing. If you can use the airplane the next day, it's an outstanding landing." Keep it simple, Yeager told them, and you may stay alive.
Borman reckoned he could do more than that. In the years before getting to Edwards, he had flown the F-89 and the T33 and the T-6 and the F-84 and even the F-104. He had flown just about every plane he could get his hands on, and not one of them had been too much for him.
One morning soon after getting to Edwards, Borman hopped into an F-104, intent on trying out a maneuver of his own invention. He called it a zoom flight, a nod to the extreme altitude and trajectory the exercise would involve. Both the plane and the new maneuver were their own kinds of trouble. Together, they were a two-headed beast.
The F-104 was a relatively new plane; test-flown for the first time just five years earlier, it had been certified fit to fly only three years back. The jet was designed to be extremely lightweight and to fly at extremely high speeds. Just fifty-five feet long, it had a wingspan of less than twenty-one feet and an airframe made of such light aluminum that, for practical purposes, the whole assembly was little more than an engine with a chair on the front. The F-104's wings were positioned so far back on the body that the man in the cockpit could not see them without a rearview mirror. And the leading edges of the wings were so fine — just .016 of an inch thick, or about the same as a razor blade — that ground crews took to covering them with protective strips lest they brush past one and cut themselves.
All of these innovations made it possible for the plane to achieve a reliable speed of Mach 2.2 — or more than twice the speed of sound — with the right altitude and wind conditions. The aircraft's design, however, did not deliver much in the way of maneuverability. Supersonic speed means a wide turning radius, and a streaking jet is a little like an ocean liner that swings hard to port but doesn't actually complete its turn until miles later. One pilot who had flown the F-104 and not cared for its handling described steering the plane as "banking with intent to turn." That was funny enough in the skies over Edwards Air Force Base, but the humor would be lost in a dogfight with a Soviet MiG. You might win the fight if it was merely a chase in the flat, though it would turn ugly once the MiG began to weave.
There were no MiGs over California, however, and Borman's zoom flight didn't call for any weaving. Instead, it would begin as an ordinary climb to 40,000 feet, nearly eight miles above the desert floor. At that point, he would light the afterburner, which would slam him back into his seat and punch the plane up to 90,000 feet.
That kind of altitude presents very particular challenges. Once you get there, neither the afterburner nor the engine work anymore, both of them strangled by the thin atmosphere. Even if you could light your engine, it would be a very risky move. The F-104's engine was air-cooled, and with little air available, an engine that was lit up might also blow up.
So now you are seventeen miles above the desert with no working form of propulsion. Climb any higher and those stubby wings on your plane are going to become useless too, since the few wisps of effective atmosphere that remained at 90,000 feet would be gone. Instead, you arc over, plunge back down, relight your engine at 70,000 feet, and come on in.
The zoom flight was a fine way to test the mettle of both the plane and the pilot. And if you had the guts to try it, it was an awful lot of fun.
Borman had flown the zoom several times before, always without incident. But this morning would be different. No sooner had he reached 40,000 feet on his upward climb than the engine did what engines are never supposed to do: it exploded. The bang was audible, the jolt was considerable, and the red fire light on the instrument panel confirmed that both the aircraft and the pilot were in mortal trouble.
What the book called for at a moment like this was cutting the engine — or whatever was left of it — to reduce the risk of fire. What the book definitely did not call for was ejecting. Yes, staying in the plane might be deadly, but hitting the air when ejecting at supersonic speeds would be akin to hitting the side of a building. Dead-sticking, or gliding without power down to the runway, was a theoretical possibility, but dead-sticking from 40,000 feet while traveling at Mach velocity was not even worth attempting.
With no even remotely good options, Borman was left to choose the least awful course of action, which was to try to restart the engine. The plane's half-wrecked piece of machinery might or might not have the wherewithal to function as it should; it most surely, however, had the power to explode again, pulling the plane apart entirely this time.
His decision made, Borman hit the ignition. The engine banged but burned. The fire light came back on, and the plane clanged and shook. Still, the engine ran for three full minutes, enough to bring the dry lake bed into view. At this point, Borman could have ejected — indeed, he knew he should have ejected — but he had brought the plane this far, and by now it was a matter of principle to land it on the runway in one sorry, faithless piece. Maybe the engineers could take it apart and see how and why it had gone wrong.
Borman did land the smoldering aircraft, and then, as soon as he quit taxiing, he hopped from the cockpit and abided by one more iron rule of piloting: he ran as fast and as far as he could from the plane. The fire trucks, which were already converging, would deal with the rest.
Once he was safely out of harm's way and in the base office, Borman picked up the phone and, fulfilling his part of the flier's marital bargain, called his wife. Susan was well aware of how risky her husband's work was; recently, in fact, she had witnessed a collision over Edwards between an F-89 and a T-33. She knew that Frank flew both planes, so she had dashed to the scene of the wreck to see if he was one of the pilots. She was stopped well before she got there by a military sentry, who told her she had to go home. She went instead to the home of a neighbor, a woman married to an officer and someone who had been through this terror before. The neighbor took her in and calmed her down and explained the Edwards rules to her. "That isn't how it's done," she said. "You have to sit and wait."
Frank had not been in either plane that time, but absorbing the lesson of that morning had not been easy for Susan. So he had promised her that in the future, whenever an accident happened, he would contact her as fast as he possibly could, and he did so today.
"You're going to hear about a problem, and you might have seen the fire trucks go out," he told her as soon as she answered the phone. "It was me. And I'm fine."
Susan, now practiced in the protocols, said that she was relieved to hear it, that she always trusted that he would bring his planes in safely, and that she was very glad to know he was all right. What she didn't do was give voice to the words that usually came into the minds of test pilots' wives in such moments: "This time."
* * *
Borman's abiding love of flight began in childhood, but his career in the air almost came to an early end. And it was his well-loved Air Force that tried to ground him.
Born in 1928, the only child of Edwin and Marjorie Borman, Frank was supposed to grow up in Gary, Indiana, where his father ran a successful garage business, a point of pride in the early years of the Great Depression, when so many other families were struggling. But the trick to living happily in Gary was overlooking the persistent chill and leaden dampness that often settled on the area. Though most Indianans could tolerate the weather, young Frank couldn't. Sinus problems, repeated colds, and mastoid infections kept him out of school so regularly that the family's doctor warned his parents that if the boy didn't get somewhere dry and warm fast, he might grow up with no hearing at all.
So the family abandoned their life in Gary and moved to Tucson, Arizona. Frank promptly got well, thrived in school, and took to building and flying model airplanes, then more model airplanes, and then many more still. When he was a senior in high school, the year after the end of World War II — a conflict in which airpower played a major role — he decided that flying real airplanes was what he wanted to do with his life. The best route to the best planes, he knew, was to get himself accepted to West Point, and from there to make his way to the Air Force.
By the time Borman decided to apply to the military academy, however, it was too late in the year to submit his application and get the necessary recommendation to West Point from his congressman. While trying to decide what to do next, he was approached by a local judge who knew him from the neighborhood. The judge had a son younger than Borman who was turning out to be something of a wild child, always on the brink of getting into trouble with the law. Impressed by Borman's straight-arrow ways, the judge wondered if he might teach his son a wholesome hobby like model-airplane building, and get him interested enough to keep him off the streets.
"I'll try, sir," Borman said simply.
"That's all I can ask," the judge responded. "It'll be to your credit if you succeed, but no one will blame you if you don't."
As it turned out, he did succeed — love of flight being a pretty easy disease to catch in 1946, and Borman being a very infectious carrier. He and the judge's son spent most of their after-school and weekend hours working together on their planes, which slowly brought the younger boy to heel.
The judge, who knew of Borman's West Point ambitions, offered to show his appreciation by contacting the local congressman himself — a veteran politician named Dick Harless — and asking him to write the needed letter of recommendation. Harless agreed, but no congressman could change the fact that it was now very late in the West Point application process, and the best the military academy could offer Borman was a third-alternate slot: three boys who had already been accepted would have to decline the academy's offer. Improbably, the long shot came in, as, one after another, the potential cadets decided that maybe they weren't West Point material after all. Borman, to his own amazement, took his place as a shaven-headed plebe in the class of 1950.
As he'd suspected he would, Borman loved every single thing about West Point. His family's survival during the Depression had depended on his father's inexhaustible dedication to his work; Borman had absorbed that lesson, applied it in high school, and now did so again at the academy. He loved West Point's head-cracking academics and ferocious discipline and the deep camaraderie that came from standing on the lowest rung of an exceedingly hierarchical system.
Unlike a lot of the other plebes, Borman even learned to appreciate the self-control that came from tolerating the hazing at the hands of more senior cadets, though that part was not easy. There was the business of eating in silence in a full-brace, straight-backed, eyes-ahead position, and complying uncomplainingly when an upperclassman would unmake a perfectly made bed and have him remake it. And he learned, too, a subversive secret about West Point: occasionally there were moments — well considered, precisely chosen — when it paid greater dividends not to comply.
Early in his first year, as Borman stood in ranks, an upperclassman known as a relentless bully was inspecting the plebes, paying particular attention to their shined shoes. When he reached Borman, he stopped. "Mr. Borman, those shoes don't look good," he declared.
"Yes, sir," Borman answered, staring straight ahead and, as he'd been trained, avoiding eye contact.
"But now they're going to look worse."
With that, he lifted his foot and slammed the heel of his own shoe on top of Borman's.
Borman remained standing, ignoring the blaze of pain that ran through the fine bones on the top of his foot. Then he hissed quietly, "You son of a bitch. If you ever do that again, I'll kill you."
Silence came from the upperclassman, as well as from the plebes nearby, who had heard what Borman said but dared not acknowledge it. Such insubordination could wreck a West Point career before it even got started, and everyone knew it. The upperclassman stood and glared — and then moved on. Borman's defiant bet paid off; as best he was ever able to piece it together, his tormentor already had a reputation for abusive hazing and could no more afford a reported incident than could Borman himself.
Borman's rise at the military academy was swift in every respect save one: sports, specifically football, which at West Point was pretty much the only sport that counted. He might have had the grit for the game, but at just five foot seven and 155 pounds, he definitely did not have the size. Bantamweight was good for a pilot, not a lineman. Nevertheless, Borman joined the team anyway, in the only capacity in which they would have him — as manager, which effectively meant equipment boy, albeit with some organizational and scheduling responsibilities.
All the same, he thrived in the job. Partly that was because he got to work with the likes of head coach Earl Blaik — equal parts man and monument in college football — and a young offensive-line coach named Vince Lombardi. Both were tactically brilliant, though Blaik maintained a rigorous cool while Lombardi was a man of raw emotion. Borman saw himself in Blaik, but he also admired the happy madness that was Lombardi. Most of all, however, he liked the simple yet vital work the job of manager required him to do. Although he could not contribute on the field, he could bring a necessary order to the entire enterprise, without which everything else would come to ruin.