Former NASA Test Pilot Airs Grief Over Astronauts

Times Staff Writer

These days Mark Stucky's work routine is grounded in the mundane realities of mortgage brokering -- finding home buyers the right loan at the right rate.

But just a few years ago he spent his days at the brink of space, as a test pilot so accomplished that he trained three of the astronauts who were killed when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in a fiery burst last week.

On Thursday, Stucky was one of four fliers taking part in a missing-man formation that thundered over Edwards Air Force Base in memory of the seven lost astronauts.

The next day he was back at his desk at Pacific Republic Mortgage in Oxnard, musing over the lightning-fast twists and turns of his professional life.

"I've kind of Forrest Gump-ed my way around," he said.

At 44, Stucky has had the kind of career that makes great movies. Growing up in Kansas, he became a Marine pilot after graduating from Kansas State. He made it through a number of elite "Top Gun"-style military training schools, served as a test pilot at Point Mugu and China Lake, flew combat missions in Operation Desert Storm, and joined NASA as an aerospace research pilot in 1993.

Over the years, he piloted everything from the Goodyear blimp to the SR-71 Blackbird, which, soaring at 2,200 miles per hour into a blue yonder 80,000 feet up, is the fastest plane on earth. Like other test pilots, Stucky has always known in his gut that with one faulty turn or one loose bolt he could meet a quick and violent end.

Even so, his heart sank when he was jolted out of bed by a phone call early last Saturday.

"It was a friend from Houston calling to say that the shuttle was lost," he said. "It was a sad, sickening realization."

He had met all but one of the Columbia's astronauts and had instructed Col. Rick Husband, the flight commander and proud Texan who sang in a church choir; Lt. Col. Michael Anderson, the physicist who hoped to inspire other African-Americans; and Kalpana Chawla, the aerospace engineer who had gained fame from Bombay to Bangalore as the first Indian woman in space.

Stucky didn't know them well. There wasn't much chit-chat as he focused on improving their "situational awareness" at the controls of a T-38 jet traveling faster than sound. Even so, he liked what he saw.

Husband was exuberant and funny, virtually memorizing entire Monty Python routines. Anderson was shy. Chawla had a keen sense of adventure, falling in love with aerobatic sport-flying in her spare time.

"They were typical astronauts," he said. "They all had this quiet confidence and were very committed professionals."

That they are now gone strikes old aerospace hands like Stucky as tragic, but not shocking. He has buried pilots who were at the helm of less experimental aircraft, including a former student who was killed when his F-15 jet blew apart.

"When NASA first designed the shuttle, they said one would fly every two weeks and that the failure rate would be one in 100,000," Stucky said. "But any thinking astronaut has to realize that there's about a 2% chance they won't be coming home. That's the realistic success rate right now, but it's not necessarily one that we as a nation can stomach."

Despite the chances of a shuttle catastrophe -- now two in 113 -- Stucky had dreams of becoming an astronaut. He was turned down three times but on the fourth, he made a crucial cut. By then, though, he had a job offer from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration -- an invitation that would come to a test pilot only once every six years and that would boost Stucky to the top ranks of his field.

Sometimes Stucky wonders whether he made the right choice but he didn't think about it when he was roaring over Edwards on Thursday. The mission was to fly over the crowd of mourners within five seconds of the last lingering note of the bugler's "Taps," and that's what occupied him as he throttled his F-18 above the desert floor.

After six years in Houston and at Edwards, Stucky left NASA. Opportunities to fly eye-popping planes had shriveled. The agency concentrated on the shuttle and on unmanned aircraft, which, Stucky pointed out, "are not great for a test pilot's career."

A stint as a pilot for United Airlines also ended in disappointment, with the bankrupt carrier telling Stucky he would be in the next wave of employees destined for a layoff.

Now, the only time Stucky is aloft is on weekends, when he leaps off bluffs and rides the wind on paragliders.

Weekdays, he has plunged back into the bonds of earth. He figures the mortgage business will allow him, his wife and their three children to stay put and enjoy their Camarillo home.

But there will be adjustments. Stucky will have to give up the nickname other pilots gave him early in his career. They knew he had some proficiency at creating fake IDs in college and awarded him the name he still goes by around Edwards: "Forger."

"In the mortgage business, I don't think it's so good to be called 'Forger,' " he said.

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