Conversations with Carl Pascarell: Aviation authenticity in The Right Stuff

There’s been a lot of excitement about future space travel lately. Mining colonies on the moon. Permanent settlements on Mars. Even something as seemingly frivolous as space tourism is in the works. Yes, the new space race is here and it looks to be fantastic.

Warner Bros. Television, Appian Way Productions, and National Geographic Studios have captured the modern space travel zeitgeist with an enthralling reimagining of Tom Wolfe’s 1979 novel, The Right Stuff.

According to the series’ site, “The incredible story of the early days of the U.S. space program, based on the iconic bestseller by Tom Wolfe. At the height of the Cold War, newly formed NASA selects seven of the military’s best test pilots to become astronauts. Competing to be the first in space, these men achieve the extraordinary, inspiring the world to turn towards a new horizon of ambition and hope.”

Carl Pascarell, a special aviation consultant to the series, set aside some time to discuss working on the project and the accuracy of its flight scenes.

Can you just give me some background on your involvement with the series?

I’ve been flying since I was a 13 year old kid. I try to do as much flying as I can. In the course of all of that flying, I came to know Jennifer Davis, one of the executive producers. Of course she was 12 years old at the time. But I was a friend of her dad’s. He was an aviation guy and of some repute too. When she got involved with The Right Stuff, she called me and asked whether I’d like to visit the set. At that point, it was really more just to reconnect.

The first time I was on a set, I was very curious and very excited about the whole thing. Towards the end of that day, she asked if I’d be interested in consulting about more technical aspects of the series and the flying

What was it like for you, since it was your first time especially what was it like working on the project?

It was extremely interesting. I’m curious, generally speaking, I had question after question after question. It was the ultimate behind the scenes. Everybody watches movies and miniseries on television, but when somebody has never seen what’s behind the scenes, it’s fascinating. The added benefit of having it be about something I do was great too. I can honestly say it’s been a great learning experience.

What kind of flying did you do when you were flying?

Well, I started flying as a kid, I was 13 years old. I had my pilot’s license before I had my driver’s license. And it was clear from that point, that I was totally taken by this field. I immersed myself in it for the next 50 something years. 

I went to school to get a degree in aerospace engineering, because I thought it had something to do with flying. I got the degree. Later, I was in the Navy and I flew off aircraft carriers for eight years, reserves for another four years flying attack fighter aircraft. Eventually, I went to work for the airlines when I got out of the Navy. That was the profession that allowed you the money and the time off to pursue other aspects of flying, which I did. I flew air shows for a bunch of years and a bunch of different aircraft. 

What were some of the things that you pointed out in terms of technical detail?

I saw minor details, what people might consider insignificant. They were things somebody who flew would see right away and go, “Wait a minute. That’s not how a pilot would say that. Or wait a minute the afterburner light on that f1 onboard that’s not how it looks.” Little things like that. The visual effects guys were fabulous. 

This particular sequence was an F-104, and that crashed and the flight leading up to the crash was specifically shown so there was a lot to look at. A lot of what they initially had was incorrect. It wasn’t how the aircraft would behave. And so we went back and forth. They would send me a clip, and I would make comments and talk to them and explain that the aircraft really wouldn’t pitch up that way. It would roll more this way or whatever it was. Then they would redo it and send me another clip. In the end, the results were fabulous.

Can you give more examples of the technical and jargony things that you had seen and corrected?

In one scene, a test pilot just is having second thoughts about staying with the business because it was dangerous and he just watched his friend die in an aircraft accident. He went to see his commanding officer and said “Look, I was thinking about leaving this flight test thing. Maybe you can get me a flying job flying a C-131.” It sounds simple but they would not refer to it as a C 131, they would just say, a 131, because they all knew what they’re talking. The original dialogue was a little too formal.

There was a lot of technical information about what the aircraft should look like, what does it look like from the outside and from inside. For example, what does it look like when it goes out of control? The aircraft behaves in a particular way. I also pointed out that the aircraft have external fuel tanks and when in flight test, they really wouldn’t be flying in a certain way.

What kind of science do pilots, learn in the process of becoming a pilot?

To be frank, very little. I’ve known plenty of Navy carrier pilots, arguably the most demanding form of flying there is on the planet, and they were music majors or history majors or economics majors. So learning science is not required. 

However, if you’re going to go into the flight test area, you have to be able to convey to an engineer or to a scientist or to a physicist, what’s going on. It’s one thing to fly the airplane; it’s quite another to be able to verbalize what’s going on with airplanes so that an engineer can understand. So you have to be able to speak that language.

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