Before NASA, John Glenn was a Marine pilot
John Glenn is the kind of pilot who makes it home. The world held its breath on Feb. 20,1962, as he reentered the atmosphere after circling the Earth three times. There was an indication that the heat shield on his Mercury capsule Friendship 7 wasn’t attached properly, threatening a tragic end to the first U.S. orbital human spaceflight, but he got home safely. Glenn attracted less attention in 1953, when an antiaircraft shell blew a hole in the tail of his F9F Panther over Korea (see photo), one of 12 times his aircraft was hit by enemy fire in the course of 102 combat missions in two wars. «He hit as I was coming down to shoot up an anti-aircraft position,» the retired U.S. senator told a rapt audience at the National Air & Space Museum May 24. «I was just pulling out from that run when this anti-aircraft from across the valley, apparently, hit the tail of the airplane and knocked the trim out, so I had to hold a lot of pressure on the stick to come back.»
At 90, Glenn still has plenty of what author Tom Wolfe called «the right stuff» in his Mercury 7 group biography of the same name. Glenn’s career before he was a famous astronaut, in the relative obscurity of military aviation, foreshadowed some of the trends that shaped him as a national leader, and saw the U.S. aerospace industry grow into an economic powerhouse that put men on the Moon. In the annual Lindbergh Lecture at Air & Space, Glenn demonstrated that he maintains a keen interest in the aerospace progression of higher and faster and better.
Jack Dailey, the retired Marine four-star general who runs the museum, acted as interviewer in the lecture. He wasn’t always gentle as he took Glenn from high-horsepower prop-planes to jets to Project Bullet, the record-setting 1957 supersonic transcontinental demonstration Glenn flew in a Vought F8U Crusader. Glenn, he noted, was «a sniveler,» a Marine-aviation term unlisted in any dictionary that means «a person who is always hustling» for an interesting flight. The term certainly applies to Glenn, who thought up the high-speed flight from Los Alamitos NAS, Calif., to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, N.Y., that set him up for selection as one of the first U.S. astronauts.
During World War II Glenn sniveled his way into the cockpit of an F4U ID Corsair Charles Lindbergh himself brought to his squadron for a demonstration. Later, Glenn said, Lindbergh flew with him and his comrades on a couple of combat missions.
It goes without saying that Glenn was courageous. He jumped at the chance to fly air-to-air combat missions with the Air Force in «MiG Alley» over North Korea during his second war, and earned the tag «MiG Mad Marine» from the blue-suiters for his aggressiveness. During one of those flights he circled so long over an Air Force pilot who’d been shot down that he ran out of fuel and had to dead-stick 108 mi. back to base in his swept-wing F-86 Sabre jet.
And while Glenn remains clear that «if there’s war, we must win it,» he learned after losing his wingman on his first flight against the Japanese over the Marshall Islands that combat is anything but glorious, even in the air.
«War should be the last resort,» he said, demonstrating to an audience salted with other military aviators the value of having combat veterans in the Senate and other positions of civilian leadership. «It’s tough and it’s brutal and it’s fatal. It’s not all flags flying and bands playing, as you see in the movies or think about sometime. It’s a different story when you have to do, as many of you have done I’m sure also, and gather up somebody’s personal effects and write a letter back to a wife or a mother someplace about what happened.»
Glenn noted that new technology has profoundly impacted the tactics used by military aviators. These days, he said, pilots can score kills in the air without ever seeing their foe and strike ground targets from 25,000 ft. with GPS-guided bombs, far exceeding the accuracy he was able to achieve. «Pilotless drones» controlled from the ground are the next step, he said, «and the Marines are getting involved in that also.»
In perhaps his ultimate feat of Marine-style «sniveling,» Glenn persuaded former NASA Administrator Dan Goldin to assign him a seat on the space shuttle Discovery in 1998. The oldest human ever to fly in space, Glenn made his second ascent to orbit seated next to an astronaut named Chiaki Mukai. The geopolitical shifts and technological advances that made it possible for a Pacific War veteran to fly with a Japanese heart surgeon would have been unimaginable when Glenn signed up after Pearl Harbor. That they happened at all suggests that the lessons John Glenn learned the hard way in combat may yet be applied worldwide as mankind learns to survive the hostile environment beyond the atmosphere, and make it home safely at the end.