46 pages 1 hour read

Tom Wolfe

The Right Stuff

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1979

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Important Quotes

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“When the final news came, there would be a ring at the front door—a wife in this situation finds herself staring at the front door as if she no longer owns it or controls it—and outside the door would be a man […] come to inform her that unfortunately something had happened out there, and her husband’s body now lies incinerated in the swamps or the pines or the palmetto grass, ‘burned beyond recognition’ […] an artful euphemism to describe a human body that now looked like an enormous fowl that has burned up in a stove.” 

(Chapter 1, Pages 2-3)

This passage vividly illustrates the high stakes of military test flight and its impact on the wives of the pilots. Gruesome death and severe injury are far from uncommon in this line of work.

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“One of the phrases that kept running through the conversation was ‘pushing the outside of the envelope.’ The ‘envelope’ was a flight-test term referring to the limits of a particular aircraft’s performance, how tight a turn it could make at such-and-such a speed, and so on. ‘Pushing the outside,’ probing the outer limits, of the envelope seemed to be the great challenge and satisfaction of flight test.” 

(Chapter 1, Page 8)

The above passage introduces the notion of “pushing the outside of the envelope.” This expression refers to a pilot’s ability to take an aircraft to the limits of its capabilities, an exceptionally dangerous operation. Those able to push things to the outside of the envelope and live to tell the tale have “the right stuff.”

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“A young man might go into military flight training believing that he was entering some sort of technical school in which he was simply going to acquire a certain set of skills. Instead, he found himself all at once enclosed in a fraternity. And in this fraternity, even though it was military, men were not rated by their outward rank as ensigns, lieutenants, commanders, or whatever. No, herein the world was divided into those who had it and those who did not. This quality, this it, was never named, however, nor was it talked about in any way.” 

(Chapter 2, Page 17)

In this passage Wolfe introduces the idea of the military test pilot community as a “fraternity,” that is, a tightly knit, closed union of men. Unlike in other segments of the military, official rank does not matter in the fraternity of test pilots. The only measure of success is “the right stuff.”