I had spent several years writing a book about spaceships before I realized I was writing a book about fatherhood.
Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut, out this week, was always going to be an adventure story about Virgin’s lead test pilot, Mark Stucky; his lifelong quest to become an astronaut; and his affecting personal story. But at some point I saw the necessity of writing about my own father.
Like Stucky, my dad was a fighter pilot, a Top Gun grad, and a legend among Marine aviators. The difference was that Stucky left the Marines to chase his astronaut dream, while my dad rose through the ranks and retired with three stars, though I think he was more proud of flying single-seat jets until the very end. So I sensed a hint of umbrage in my mom’s voice when she pulled me aside one day to say that my dad had some pretty incredible stories of his own.
He was not very forthcoming, however—more often a man of facts than feelings. (This was probably why I was so drawn to Stucky, who allowed me into his inner life, to not only tell me what happened but also how he felt.) I eventually got my dad to talk about the story that confirmed his legend; he had some video.
I knew scant details—something about a bombing raid in Bosnia—but little else. Now he popped an old CD-ROM into his computer and pressed Play. The video was grainy, taken from the HUD, or Heads-Up Display, on his F-18 on April 4, 1994.
He took off that morning from an air base in Italy and flew southeast over Bosnia, circling above the town of Goražde. Serb tanks had swept into the town from the south, shelling Muslims living north of the bridge. British peacekeepers, holed up in a bunker on the north side, worried that they would soon be overrun. A NATO radio operator asked if any of the warplanes above the low clouds could swoop and take a look. Other fliers declined: it was too dangerous. My dad volunteered.
His F-18 did not have G.P.S., but he’d studied the maps and knew that a river ran west to east, bisecting Goražde. If he could find the river, he could navigate the rest of the way. He told me, narrating the footage like he was experiencing it for the first time, “I’m going to circle down and find a hole in the clouds.”
He pushed the stick forward and dove, and when he cleared the clouds he was even lower than he had been expecting—skimming the water and zipping through a ravine. “I’m in Star Wars,” he said. “It’s very narrow, and the sides of the river are high—a couple of hundred feet on the side of either wing.”
Blazing into Goražde, he saw muzzle flashes on the hillsides and was popping flares to throw off any incoming surface-to-air missiles. Over the radio, the Brit in the bunker asked my dad if he could see the tank, but it was hard to find because it was tucked in a neighborhood.
“You may see gun smoke when they fire,” said the Brit.
“I can’t see that son of a bitch,” my dad replied.
He flew low over the town, turned back, and prepared to make another pass. At Top Gun they warned against this sort of thing because the enemy knew you were coming. But my dad heard desperation in the Brit’s voice: “These tanks have to be destroyed.”
Finally eyeing the tank, my dad dove and dropped a bomb, but it dudded because he was too low for the bomb to detonate. By now he had made four low-altitude passes and was almost out of fuel. “I’m going to make one run, then I gotta get out of here,” he said on the radio.
This time he thumbed the weapons switch on the stick to activate the Gatling gun in the jet’s nose. If he could get low enough, the gun would chew up the tank, but he would have to be practically on top of it, and then be careful to avoid catching any ricochet.
As he dove he kept his eyes locked on the tank and his finger on the trigger. Eight hundred feet. Seven hundred feet. The altimeter spun and the houses got bigger and he saw the tank on the side of the road with its turret pointed north. Six hundred. Five hundred. He pulled the trigger. Four hundred. Three hundred. He held the trigger: a barrage of cannon fire hit the tank. Boom! A flash lit up his HUD. Two hundred. He jerked the stick back in his lap and rolled right to dodge the ricochet.
“Got it!” he said, straining as he climbed into the clouds while the G’s pressed him in his seat.
When the video was over I asked him how he felt on the way back to Italy. He recalled a general telling him, “If you had done that in Vietnam, we would have given you the Silver Star.”
No, I said: How did you feel? What were you thinking?
He shrugged. “Nothing,” he said. “Just that I didn’t run out of gas.”
Nicholas Schmidle’s Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut is out now from Henry Holt