In Contrails over the Mojave George Marrett takes off where Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff ended in 1963. Marrett started the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB only two weeks after the school’s commander, Col. Chuck Yeager, ejected from a Lockheed NF-104 trying to set a world altitude record. He describes life as a space cadet experiencing 15 Gs in a human centrifuge, zero-G maneuvers in a KC-135 “Vomit Comet,” and a flight to 80,000 feet in the F-104A Starfighter. After graduating from Yeager’s “Charm School,” he was assigned to the Fighter Branch of Flight Test Operations, where he flew the latest fighter aircraft and chased other test aircraft as they set world speed and altitude records.
Marrett takes readers into the cockpit as he “goes vertical” in a T-38 Talon, completes high-G maneuvers in an F-4C Phantom, and conducts wet-runway landing tests in the accident-prone F-111A Aardvark. He writes about Col. “Silver Fox” Stephens setting a world speed record in the YF-12 Blackbird and Bob Gilliland testing speed stalls in the SR-71 spy plane, but he also relives stories of crashes that killed test pilot friends. He recounts dead-sticking a T-38 to a landing on Rogers Dry Lake after a twin-engine failure and conducting dangerous tail hook barrier testing in a fighter jet without a canopy. A mysterious UFO sighting in the night sky above the Mojave Desert, known as “The Edwards Encounter,” also receives Marrett’s attention. Whether the author is assessing a new aircraft’s performance or describing the experiences of test pilots as they routinely faced the possibility of death, this look at the golden age of flight testing both thrills and informs.