The Right Stuff

Welcome to the Jungle

In 1744, a young geographer living in Spanish-colonial Peru with his wife and children decided the time had come to move the family back to his native France. Jean Godin des Odonais had come to Peru in 1735 as a part of a small scientific expedition and had ended up staying much longer than expected. He’d married a young woman from a local aristocratic family and now the couple had two children and a third on the way. But news from France eventually brought word of Godin’s father’s death, meaning that there was an inheritance to sort out. It was time to return.

Making travel arrangements from such a distance, however, was going to be a challenge. Perhaps, Godin reasoned, he and his family could travel to the colony of French Guiana at the other end of the Amazon River, then find places on a ship back to France. In order to establish whether this was plausible, Godin decided to travel ahead to French Guiana and make inquiries.

From its headwaters in Peru, the Amazon goes downhill. From this point, virtually everything for Jean and Isabel Godin did the same. Left behind, Isabel spent years waiting for word from her husband. Eventually, due to an improbable series of mishaps and misery, Isabel ended up stranded alone in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest, hopelessly lost and so far into starvation that her chances of survival were vanishingly small.

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White Death

In April of 1938, representatives from the USSR approached the Finnish government and expressed a concern that Nazi Germany could attempt to invade Russia, and such an attack might come through parts of Finland. The Finns replied that they were officially neutral, but any Nazi incursion on Finland's borders would be resisted. This did not mollify the Soviets. Hitler's manifesto, Mein Kampf, was published thirteen years previous with specific note that the Nazis would need to invade the Soviet Union. The Red Army was determined to "advance to meet the enemy" and refused to accept promises from the smaller country. As negotiations continued, the Soviets tried to coax Finland into leasing or ceding some area to serve as a buffer to Leningrad. In November 1939, however, all negotiations ceased, and on 30 November 1939 the Soviet Red Army invaded Finland.

In the municipality of Rautjärvi near the Soviet/Finnish border, 34-year-old Simo Häyhä was a farmer and hunter leading a flagrantly unexciting life. Upon news of the hostilities, he gathered up food, plain white camouflage, and his iron-sighted SAKO M/28-30--a variant of the Soviet Mosin-Nagant rifle--and went to defend his country. Before the four-month war ended, humble Häyhä would gain infamy among the Russian invaders, and come to be known as the "White Death."

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Andrée and the Aeronauts' Voyage to the Top of the World

From right to left: S. A. Andrée, Knut Fraenkel, Nils Strindberg, and Vilhelm Swedenborg (Spaeronaut)
From right to left: S. A. Andrée, Knut Fraenkel, Nils Strindberg, and Vilhelm Swedenborg (Spaeronaut)
On the 11th of July 1897, the world breathlessly awaited word from the small Norwegian island of Danskøya in the Arctic Sea. Three gallant Swedish scientists stationed there were about to embark on an enterprise of history-making proportions, and newspapers around the globe had allotted considerable ink to the anticipated adventure. The undertaking was led by renowned engineer Salomon August Andrée, and he was accompanied by his research companions Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel.

In the shadow of a 67-foot-wide spherical hydrogen balloon--one of the largest to have been built at that time--toasts were drunk, telegrams to the Swedish king were dictated, hands were shook, and notes to loved ones were pressed into palms. "Strindberg and Fraenkel!" Andrée cried, "Are you ready to get into the car?" They were, and they dutifully ducked into the four-and-a-half-foot tall, six-foot-wide carriage suspended from the balloon. The whole flying apparatus had been christened the "Örnen," the Swedish word for "Eagle."

"Cut away everywhere!" Andrée commanded after clambering into the Eagle himself, and the ground crew slashed at the lines binding the balloon to the Earth. Hurrahs were offered as the immense, primitive airship pulled away from the wood-plank hangar and bobbed ponderously into the atmosphere. Their mission was to be the first humans to reach the North Pole, taking aerial photographs and scientific measurements along the way for future explorers. If all went according to plan they would then touch down in Siberia or Alaska after a few weeks' flight, laden with information about the top of the world.

Onlookers watched for about an hour as the voluminous sphere shrank into the distance and disappeared into northerly mists. Andrée, Strindberg, and Fraenkel would not arrive on the other side of the planet as planned. But their journey was far from over.

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Pushed to the Limit

On the morning of 15 September 1952, Captain James Robinson Risner sat in the cockpit of an F-86A Sabre and scrutinized the clear azure skies. He was leader of a flight of four Sabres tasked to escort F-84 Thunderjets to bomb the kimchi out of a North Korean chemical factory on the Yuan River. His squinty perseverance paid off when he spotted a flight of enemy jet fighters-- MiG-15s--making a run for his Thunderjets. CPTN Risner's opening salvo hit one MiG so hard it took the canopy off and sent the other 3 MiGs running, but Risner didn't let it end there. The injured enemy took it low, flying hard and dirty along a dry riverbed to escape. Risner and his wingman gave chase, eating the dust and rocks kicked up by the MiG's wash. Risner told "Aces in Combat":

"He was not in very good shape, but he was a great pilot - and he was fighting like a cornered rat!

He chopped the throttle and threw his speed brakes out. I coasted up, afraid that I'd overshoot him. I did a roll over the top of him, and when I came down on the other side, I was right on his wing tip. We were both at Idle with our speed brakes out, just coasting.

He looked over at me, raised his hand, and shook his fist. I thought 'This is like a movie. This can't be happening!' He had on a leather helmet and I could see the stitching in it."

The wily chase took the trio into Chinese airspace. Low altitude and high speed conspired to keep the US pilots from seeing an airfield until they were right on top of it. The MiG pilot must have radioed ahead, however, because the field's anti-aircraft guns were manned and firing.

The MiG darted, desperate to make a landing. Risner waited for his moment and hammered him with the last of his 50 CAL rounds. The MiG slammed into the tarmac and burst into flame. As they turned to hurry out of China and back into compliance with official US policy, the wingman, 1st Lieutenant Joe Logan, took a flak shell to the underside of his plane. The Sabre held together and stayed airborne, but her fuel tank was gutted, and her hydraulic fluid was bleeding out.

Bailing the crippled craft guaranteed Logan's capture, but there was no hope of making it 60 miles over anti-aircraft gun infested territory to the nearest rescue detachment. Risner couldn't desert his friend, so instead he did the only possible thing: he attempted the craziest and most daring rescue maneuver in aviation history.

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Aches on a Plane

Alongside Memphis International Airport in Tennessee there lies a sprawling complex filled with hundreds of miles of conveyor belts, thousands of employees, and millions of parcels. A steady stream of cargo planes--often hundreds per day--carries in cargo from around the world to be sorted and redistributed. This is the FedEx Express global "SuperHub," and in spite of its titillating name it is seldom the site of much excitement. One notable exception to the day-to-day routine occurred in mid-1994. It was the same year that Federal Express embraced the abbreviated "FedEx" moniker and changed to their infamous hidden-arrow logo, and it was just four years after the release of MC Hammer's multi-platinum hit U Can't Touch This.

On 7 April 1994, just after 3:00pm, 39-year-old FedEx flyer Andy Peterson boarded a DC-10 cargo plane at the SuperHub. He was scheduled to join Flight 705 as the flight engineer; a support role in charge of monitoring and operating aircraft systems. As Peterson entered the aircraft, he was greeted by 42-year-old Auburn Calloway, a fellow flight engineer. Calloway introduced himself as the "deadhead," for the flight. He was just there because he needed a lift.

Shortly the men were joined by the plane's pilot, 49-year-old Captain David Sanders, and his 42-year-old co-pilot Captain Jim Tucker. The DC-10 had a bellyful of electronic gear bound for San Jose, ultimately destined for Silicon Valley. But flight 705 wouldn't make it anywhere near California that day.

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Rider on the Storm

In the summer of 1959, a pair of F-8 Crusader combat jets were on a routine flight to Beaufort, North Carolina with no particular designs on making history. The late afternoon sunlight glinted from the silver and orange fuselages as the US Marine Corps pilots flew high above the Carolina coast at near the speed of sound. The lead jet was piloted by 39-year-old Lt Col William Rankin, a veteran of both World War 2 and the Korean War. In another Crusader followed his wingman, Lt Herbert Nolan. The pilots were cruising at 47,000 feet to stay above a large, surly-looking column of cumulonimbus cloud which was amassing about a half mile below them, threatening to moisten the officers upon their arrival at the air field.

Mere minutes before they were scheduled to begin their descent towards Beaufort, William Rankin heard a decreasingly reassuring series of grinding sounds coming from his aircraft's engine. The airframe shuddered, and most of the indicator needles on his array of cockpit instruments flopped into their fluorescent orange “something is horribly wrong” regions. The engine had stopped cold. As the unpowered aircraft dipped earthward, Lt Col Rankin switched on his Crusader's emergency generator to electrify his radio. “Power failure,” Rankin transmitted matter-of-factly to Nolan. “May have to eject.”

Unable to restart his engine, and struggling to keep his craft from entering a near-supersonic nose dive, Rankin grasped the two emergency eject handles. He was mindful of his extreme altitude, and of the serious discomfort that would accompany the sudden decompression of an ejection; but although he lacked a pressure suit, he knew that his oxygen mask should keep him breathing in the rarefied atmosphere nine miles up. He was also wary of the ominous gray soup of a storm that lurked below; but having previously experienced a bail out amidst enemy fire in Korea, a bit of inclement weather didn't seem all that off-putting. At approximately 6:00 pm, Lt Col Rankin concluded that his aircraft was unrecoverable and pulled hard on his eject handles. An explosive charge propelled him from the cockpit into the atmosphere with sufficient force to rip his left glove from his hand, scattering his canopy, pilot seat, and other plane-related debris into the sky. Bill Rankin had spent a fair amount of time skydiving in his career—both premeditated and otherwise—but this particular dive would be unlike any that he or any living person had experienced before.

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Steely-Eyed Hydronauts of the Mariana

The crew of the HMS <em>Challenger</em>, 1874
The crew of the HMS Challenger, 1874
On 21 December 1872, the British naval corvette HMS Challenger sailed from Portsmouth, England on an historic endeavor. Although the sophisticated steam-assisted sailing vessel had been originally constructed as a combat ship, her instruments of war had been recently removed to make room for laboratories, dredging equipment, and measuring apparatuses. She and her crew of 243 sailors and scientists set out on a long, meandering circumnavigation of the globe with orders to catalog the ocean's depth, temperature, salinity, currents, and biology at hundreds of sites--an oceanographic effort far more ambitious than any undertaken before it.

For three and a half long, dreary years the crew spent day after day dredging, measuring, and probing the oceans. Although the data they collected was scientifically indispensable, men were driven to madness by the tedium, and some sixty souls ultimately opted to jump ship rather than take yet another depth measurement or temperature reading. One day in 1875, however, as the crew were "sounding" an area near the Mariana Islands in the western Pacific, the sea swallowed an astonishing 4,575 fathoms (about five miles) of measuring line before the sounding weight reached the floor of the ocean. The bedraggled researchers had discovered an undersea valley which would come to be known as the Challenger Deep. Reaching 6.78 miles at its lowest point, it is now known to be the deepest location on the whole of the Earth. The region is of such immense depth that if Mount Everest were to be set on the sea floor at that location, the mighty mountain's peak would still be under more than a mile of water.

Nothing was known of what organisms and formations might lurk at such depths. Many scientists of the day were convinced that such crevasses must be lifeless places considering the immense pressure, relative cold, total lack of sunlight, and presumed absence of oxygen. It would be almost a century before a handful of inventors and explorers finally resolved to go down there and take a look for themselves.

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The Heroes of SARS

On 21 February 2003, a physician in Hong Kong was feeling particularly unwell. He must have had an inkling that something serious was amiss, for his symptoms closely matched those of a number of patients he had treated in recent weeks: fever, aching muscles, headache, a dry cough, and shortness of breath. An alarmingly high proportion of these people had become critically ill, with inflamed, fluid-saturated lungs. Breathing was rendered somewhat difficult, and death frequently followed.

Although the sixty-four year old nephrologist resided in the Guangdong region of southern China, he was enjoying time away for a family wedding when the worst of the symptoms struck. Sketchy reports of a mysterious respiratory illness had been filtering out of his home province for several months, but the official channels gave no indication of anything untoward. The day he arrived in Hong Kong he felt well enough to check into his room on the ninth floor of the Metropole Hotel, and he even did some sightseeing and shopping later in the afternoon. But the following morning his condition had worsened, and he was forced to seek care at the territory’s Kwong Wah Hospital. There he told staff he feared he had contracted “a very virulent disease,” and suggested immediate isolation. Yet the damage had already been done.

Back at the Metropole Hotel, globetrotting guests from the ninth floor were preparing to leave for Canada, Singapore, and Vietnam. Soon, they too would fall ill. In less than a week, the world would be left poised on the brink of a pandemic. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) had arrived. While the occupants of the western hemisphere often remember the events in the context of an overblown media frenzy, many epidemiologists today regard the outbreak as a near-miss for humanity-- one which might have become one of history's most unpleasant epidemics had it not been for the quick thinking and selflessness of a few individuals.

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DAMN LARGE

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