Hunter S. Thompson's "Those Daring Young Men in Their Flying Machines . . . Ain't What They Used to Be!," originally published in Pageant, 1969 and later released in The Great Shark Hunt.
Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men's reality. Weird heroes and mold-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of "the rat race" is not yet final. Look at Joe Namath, they say; he broke all the rules and still beat the system like a gong. Or Hugh Hefner, the Horatio Alger of our time. And Cassius Clay -- Muhammad Ali -- who flew so high, like the U-2, that he couldn't quite believe it when the drone bees shot him down.
. . .
Joe Cotton is 47, one of the last of the precomputer generation. By today's standards, he wouldn't even qualify for test-pilot training. He is not a college graduate, much less a master of advanced calculus with an honors degree in math or science. But the young pilots at Edwards speak of Joe Cotton as if he were already a myth. He is not quite real, in their terms: a shade too complex, not entirely predictable. . . .
Joe Cotton is a very gentle, small-boned man with an obsessive interest in almost everything. We talked for nearly five hours. In an age of stereotypes, he manages to sound like a patriotic hippie and a Christian anarchist all at once . . .
"Flight testing is a beautiful racket . . . Being a test pilot on the Mojave Desert in America is the greatest expression of freedom I can think of. . . . " And suddenly: "Retiring from the Air Force is like getting out of a cage. . . ."
It is always a bit of a shock to meet an original, unfettered mind, and this was precisely the difference between Colonel Joe Cotton and the young pilots I met on the base. The Air Force computers have done their work well: They have screened out all but the near-perfect specimens. And the science of aviation will benefit, no doubt, from the ultimate perfection of the flight-test equation. Our planes will be safer and more efficient, and eventually we will breed all our pilots in test tubes.
Perhaps it is for the best. Or maybe not. The last question I asked Joe Cotton was how he felt about the war in Vietnam, and particularly the antiwar protest. "Well," he said, "anytime you can get people emotionally disturbed about war, that's good. I've been an Air Force pilot most of my life, but I've never thought I was put on earth to kill people. The most important thing in life is concern for one another. When we've lost that, we've lost the right to live. If more people in Germany had been concerned about what Hitler was doing, well. . . ."
"You know," he said finally. "When I fly over Los Angeles at night, I look down at all those lights . . . six million people down there . . . and that's how many Hitler killed. . . ." He just shook his head.
. . .
The next afternoon, in the officer's club bar, I decided to broach the same question about the war in a friendly conversation with a young test pilot from Virginia, who had spent some time in Vietnam before his assignment to Edwards. "Well, I've changed my mind about the war," he said. "I used to be all for it, but now I don't give a damn. It's no fun anymore, now that we can't go up north. You could see your targets up there, you could see what you hit. But hell, down south all you do is fly a pattern and drop a bunch of bombs through clouds. There's no sense of accomplishment." He shrugged and sipped his drink, dismissing the war as a sort of pointless equation, an irrelevant problem no longer deserving of his talents.
An hour or so later, driving back to Los Angeles, I picked up a newscast on the radio: Student riots at Duke, Wisconsin, and Berkeley; oil slick in the Santa Barbara Channel; Kennedy murder trials in New Orleans and Los Angeles. And suddenly Edwards Air Force Base and that young pilot from Virginia seemed a million miles away. Who would ever have thought, for instance, that the war in Vietnam could be solved by taking the fun out of bombing?
Hunter S. Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt