"If I had a death wish, I'm obviously rather poor at it because I've been around for a few decades doing dangerous stuff." Mark 'Forger' Stucky - Virgin Galactic astronaut, retired Marines, former NASA test pilot
Mark 'Forger' Stucky is a retired Marine and former test pilot for the military and NASA. Currently, Mark is a pilot for Virgin Galactic and earned his FAA Astronaut wings last year (2018) for the first successful sub-orbital flight of the VSS Unity. Mark joins the podcast to talk about his love for flying and how it started with hang gliding, his journey through the military and NASA, and what it was like to finally reach space. Mark defies death as a profession but always looks towards the future.
Jeff: Forger, I want to start off by thanking you for welcoming us into your incredible man cave and your home, and also thank you for your service and your entire incredible career. I want to start almost at the beginning, because what always inspires me and interests me is people who want to not only fly but learn to fly and are interested in flying. Where did that start for you?
Forger: One of my earliest memories was John Glenn's flight, and I was not even four years old yet. And I remember it for a couple of reasons. One was it interfered with the show I was watching, Captain Kangaroo, at the time.
Forger: But the other was there was something fascinating about it. I could sense at that young age how amazing it was. I had the conversation with my father later on that day about it, and I could tell that being an astronaut was something really, really cool. And that starts with, I think, having a love for flight.
Forger: I always had a love for flight. I never once thought I had a chance to be an astronaut. I never said that was my career goal until much later in life. And I never ... by same reason, I hear about people that became student pilots before they could learn to drive. I never thought I had that opportunity.
Forger: But there was a National Geographic article that came out in 1972 when I was age 13 that showed these guys jumping off hills in hang gliders built out of bamboo and plastic. In some way, that seemed like something I could do, and I pushed for a couple of years and then got my first hang glider. I've been Hang gliding and paragliding ever since.
Forger: I think ultimately that's the love of flight. It's shown through that. And I think that carries over to soaring flight. I've been involved in several projects where the real hard chargers, the people that got stuff done, were all sailplane pilots. And I think if you are into soaring, gliding, fly, it's a certain love of aviation that is deeper than maybe a normal pilot.
Jeff: So you were hang gliding at 14?
Forger: Yeah. 15. I don't know if I started yet.
Jeff: 15? What did your parents think of that?
Forger: Well, it took me a couple years to convince my father, but he went in with me 50-50 on my first hang glider, and he supported that. So yeah, I actually started hang gliding before I could drive.
Forger: And he would just say, "Be careful" or that kind of thing. But yeah, he was a pretty much a hands-off dad. So, that's good.
Jeff: That's good. So cut to a little bit later. I know you joined the military. Did you learn to fly in the military or did you go to flight school before that?
Forger: No, I learned in the military, and by that time, I did have a dream to be an astronaut because I'd ... My junior year in college, my advisor ... I had never declared a major. I was taking engineering courses without any strong desire to become an engineer, and my advisor said, "You know, as much as you cut class to go hang glide, maybe you should check into the Air Force."
Forger: I never considered that a possibility. I went and talked to the Air Force, and it was a possibility. They were not the least bit interested in giving me a pilot slot, but the Marines happened to be there, and they were.
Forger: So you have to take some tests. I did really well on the tests, to the point they were like, "Do you have aviation background experience?" And I said, "Just hang gliding." But I think it gave me a sense of stuff where I could do well on the aviation side, or a desire to.
Forger: Anyway, I was very wary of signing my name on the dotted line to join the Marines. I was raised very anti-military. But then my senior year, there was a flyer on the campus bulletin board that NASA was looking for astronauts for the space shuttle program, and at that time, not growing up, thinking, "Being an astronaut would be the ultimate job," but not realistic, and by the time I was in high school, I'd given up on it. NASA had not recruited for astronauts since I was in grade school, and the moon landings were over. So, suddenly here they were recruiting again. And if you read the flyer, they wanted military test pilots, strong preference for military test pilots to fly. So that was like, "Oh, I was thinking about the Marines already. That's it. I'm going to chase that dream."
Jeff: So when you join and you become a pilot, is there a separate school to become a test pilot?
Forger: Oh, yeah.
Jeff: Was that a track that you went right away for, then?
Forger: No. See, you can't. For a test pilot in the military, you have to have at the time 1500 hours of high-performance jet time.
Forger: I had some great advice early on. So I knew I wanted to fly fighters for no other reason than I wanted to be able to fly supersonic and wanting to know what an afterburner felt like. I did well enough where I got fighters, and then when I went to the my first F-4 Phantom school, one of the instructors was a test pilot, so I pulled him aside and said, "Hey, that was my dream." And he gave me the best recommendation ever, which was, "Keep it a secret until you get all the tactical experience you can get." So I kept it a secret, did well, went to TOPGUN, weapons tactics instructor.
Forger: After that, now I have the background and maybe a lead on my peers where I could say I want to be a test pilot, and then you start competing for that.
Jeff: Oh, so it's not even going through ... so you have to actually compete for a slot to be a test pilot?
Forger: Yeah, they pick every six months. Both the Navy and Air Force have schools, and Marines normally go to the Navy school. And it's a one-year syllabus and they have two classes going at any one time. So they're staggered every six months. So every six months there'll be a selection cycle for a class another year from then or something.
Jeff: Wow. I'm trying to work through your timeline. You became a test pilot in the Marines, correct?
Jeff: And then was it when you left the Marines, you started as a test pilot with NASA, or was there-?
Forger: Yeah, that part is true. So, I was now ... I mean, ultimately, I wanted to be an astronaut, so the moment I was in test pilot school, I started applying to the astronaut program because I thought, "No harm, no foul" showing interests early, even though I wasn't qualified, I didn't feel.
Forger: But for some reason, when I was still a student, I was a finalist in 1989, and somehow they knew me and kept asking me back every couple of years. I was never picked. I'd be a finalist, so close but no cigar. But after my second time, they said ... One of the interview questions was, "Hey, what's next for you if you're not picked?" And I said I was thinking about getting out of the military because my wife at the time was looking for a more stable life and not moving every few years.
Forger: And so, when I was not picked that same day, I immediately was called by them saying, "Hey, are you interested in maybe flying for us as an astronaut instructor pilot?" I'm like, "Okay." Which is kind of like the minor leagues to be an astronaut. Every once in a while Houston would pick a civilian astronaut pilot, and they always came from that group of guys. So, it was not a nudge nudge, wink wink that I'd be a shoe-in or anything, but it could be a possible avenue.
Forger: I went working for them for a few years in Houston, and then it seemed like I had this realization that they select every couple of years. This was my fourth time, and if they're only going to pick four guys or gals, there would always be a half dozen that were better than me, ranked higher than me, and there was an opening out at the flight research center at Edwards Air Force Base.
Forger: Those were openings that literally somebody has to die for. Those are the guys that fly the X-planes and they're really cool research airplanes, and stuff that was in the National Geographic article that got me going into hang gliding. I couldn't turn that one down, so I applied for that and was picked up for that and then made the transfer over then to me what I'd call, "Real flight test," for NASA out at Edwards Air Force Base.
Jeff: That's working on classified stuff at that point, right? I'm not going to get you in trouble. I'm just ...
Forger: No, yeah. So, typically not. Working on research stuff, so highly modified or new designs. So that's where the X-planes come from. I felt at the time like I was a generation too late. I was missing the X-planes. Now there's a rash of X-planes maybe coming out now. We'll see.
Forger: But thrust vectoring on a fighter, that was first done there. That's the kind of programs I did. Supersonic laminar flow in a very highly-modified F-16 towing enough ... 106 on a thousand-foot rope beyond a C-141 transport as a proof of concept for a potential space launch idea. Those are those kind of research missions that I'm talking about and not classified. There were some times we did some classified technologies that we were part of, but that was not our normal day-to-day job. I was not there flying secret airplanes.
Jeff: I also have to ask just as as part of the culture, I grew up in the 80s and your being a test pilot in the 80s and the 90s, and then it becomes sensationalized in Hollywood. What was that like? Were they getting anything right with that, with Top Gun and all that kind of stuff? What was your thoughts on that? Because you were actually living it and then you have Tom Cruise over here pretending to be it.
Forger: The funny thing I tell people about Top Gun was, my family was not nearly as impressed that I went to Top Gun until after the movie came out. I went a year before Tom Cruise did.
Jeff: That's incredible.
Forger: And there was no Top Gun trophy.
Jeff: Right. Exactly. Right.
Forger: But you definitely tried to do the best you can and it's the best weeks of your life during that day in, day out. Just great dogfighting.
Jeff: Yeah. And then what else I know about you is that you then left NASA, you went back into the military, and then after that it's kind of cutting to now with Virgin. How did you first hear about that? Because I think that story is really interesting because we're now in an age where when you grew up, you saw John Glenn with NASA, and that was be-all end-all, to be an astronaut. Now there's all of these other companies that are fueling just the conversation of space exploration and astronauts and that kind of thing, and Virgin is at one of the forefronts of that. But how did you first hear about something like that?
Forger: So I left NASA actually to go fly for United Airlines. And unfortunately-
Jeff: I didn't know that.
Forger: That was right before 9/11, yeah. I was scheduled to fly Flight 175 from Boston to LA on September 18th, but a week prior it was hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center. So after that happened, then I was furloughed and went back in the military. With regards to your question, though, is interesting ... I had no problem accepting that I was not going to be a NASA astronaut. You had to be. I tell people, I was like, "Hey, you could be the most extremely beautiful, extremely talented Miss Kansas, but you can't expect that you're going to be Miss USA. There's 49 other extremely beautiful and hopefully talented women." And so I could accept that.
Forger: And then I was in the Air Force at Edwards and they unveiled Spaceship One, and it blew my socks off. I went from feeling like I was born a generation too late to, "Holy crap, this is here and now and this might be a possibility."
Forger: I was actually extremely envious of those guys. I was not envious of the astronauts I knew. I'd accepted that. I was envious of the Scaled Composites pilots that were a part of that.
Jeff: Wow. And you started working for Virgin Galactic 2014? 15?
Forger: 15. I actually started with Scaled Composites.
Jeff: Oh, okay.
Forger: Which was the company contracted by Virgin to design and build the follow on the commercial Spaceship Two and White Knight Two. So I retired from the Air Force in '09. Literally left there on Friday. Working at Scaled on a Monday and then became involved in the Spaceship Two and the White Knight Two program, and then was doing that for a few years and was one of the two primary pilots on the Spaceship Two program and White Knight Two program. And after the accident it was obvious that what Virgin Galactic was going to take the rest of the build of the next spaceship in-house and was going to take the testing in-house, and thankfully they saved me a spot.
Jeff: That's incredible. And that brings us to Unity.
Jeff: I kind of want to ask just as a personal question, you cut your teeth on the F-4 Phantom and planes like that. What we've now with tech and everything else have grown in that industry. How different is it flying something like the Phantom as to something like the Unity?
Forger: Actually, flying the Phantom is probably much more like flying Unity than being an F-22 pilot and flying the Unity.
Forger: Because in the Phantom, if you say wanted to roll left and you're just cruising around at high-speed flight, moved the stick to the left, you roll left, you don't have to think about the rudder pedals on the floor at all. As you slow down and say you're coming in to land, you need to be coordinating the rudder pedals with the ailerons quite effectively to not have too much adverse yaw with departure. And if your dogfighting, then you've got the stick full aft in your lap trying to get the biggest bites you can, the highest angle of attack the aircraft and get on you, and you want to roll left, you'd better not think about touching the ailerons or you will depart to the right.
Forger: There you're flying with two hands on the center and you just flying totally with your feet. So you have to have this air sense of where you are in the flat envelope and how to respond appropriately to that. You take a case of a modern fly-by-wire airplane like an F-18 or F-22. Aerodynamically they have all those same issues, but the computers take care of it for you You just say, "I want to roll left." You just move a stick left. It doesn't matter. You're telling it whatever you want to go. And if you pull up the flight control display, you may see, "Hey, I'm really slow. Oh, it's giving me full rudder and some differential turning edge stab." It's doing what it takes, but it takes all that thinking, all that interpretation off your shoulders. Spaceship Two is more basic. It's more like the F-4. So you've got an aircraft that can fly relatively slow speeds and then fly at speeds in the realm of the SR-71 Blackbird and do it all manually. So it changes as you fly it and you have to learn how to fly it, and we need a very good flight simulator to replicate that, which we have.
Jeff: Wow, that's incredible. I know that so much testing, preparation, everything going into the historic flight from December of last year with Unity, and you do it. You get there. You're in space. Do you get a moment in your head to process that or is it still just like, "I'm in it and I'm making sure everything's working." Do you get that moment like as a boy wanting to fly and being able to connect full circle?
Forger: I did on the last flight and I basically did that by almost writing it into the flight card. I had done what, three powered flights on Enterprise, and people had said like, "Was the sky black?" [inaudible 00:17:38] "I never looked out the window."
Jeff: Right. You're just ... you're focused.
Forger: I'm too busy-
Jeff: Yeah. Yeah.
Forger: Do my test ports, looking at displays being exact, but by the same token, I've seen cases of looking out the window and you screw up. To me, one of the most realistic things about the movie The Right Stuff is that sense of whatever you do, don't screw the pooch. And that is true. I mean, I go out there, I'm not worried about living or dying. I'm worrying about not screwing the pooch. And you can't say, "Oh, I'm going to repeat that test point" because now a second later you're a half a Mach faster. You're off those conditions or else you're gliding coming down real fast though. You really have to try to be exact and efficient and work really hard and not get sidetracked. But the beauty of the full duration, longer duration burns is it spaces the time out so you can say, "Okay, if everything is good here, I'm going take a look out the window and I'm going to say what comes to my mind." And so I had some of those moments so I could look out the window and go, "Wow."
Forger: Take a look at that horizon.
Jeff: I mean, just seeing the footage of it ... I'm just watching on YouTube and in my house and it's breathtaking. I can't imagine to be experiencing it like you did, and that kind of brings me to the theme of this show. You have this uncanny ability to just keep looking forward throughout your entire life. I mean, you were four years old and you saw John Glenn and you had that conversation with your dad, and then you were at 15 hang gliding off cliffs, which is crazy to me, and then throughout your entire career ... what feels that passion for you? What fuels you to keep looking towards that next thing?
Forger: Well, I think what fuels the passion is having the passion. For me the passion is flight. I'm not a ... it's funny, I don't have a death wish, but I love Death Wish Coffee. If I had a death wish, I'm obviously rather poor at it because I've been around for a few decades doing dangerous stuff. I love flying. I love challenges. But the kind of flying I do gives you a sense of freedom that is very unique. A hang glider flight high over the Sierra gives you a, "Oh, my God. This is just the most beautiful planet ever." And I think space flight's the same thing. You're looking down, you're going, "Holy crap. This is amazing."
Jeff: It's true. I just flew for the first time on Sunday at the Soaring Academy Glider School. I flew up in a glider and I'm never going to be the same. I've never experienced anything like that.
Forger: You need to buy a ticket, then.
Jeff: I honest to God am going to because I've even said that my goal is to someday ... I've always space exploration and astronauts. I just knew that I didn't have the capacity to go through all the schooling and training to actually become one. But now we are in an age where I could someday buy a ticket on Virgin Galactic and actually go to space, and I'm going to someday. A hundred percent I'm going to. You did ... I got to ask if we could talk about this, because you said when we were talking a little bit before we started recording about ... you were talking about Death Wish Coffee, about the mug that you had. Can you tell that story a little bit? Because I think this is hilarious.
Forger: So my wife has a thing for skulls, my wife Cheryl, and she saw Death Wish Coffee with a skull, and that attracted her to it, and then she bought it and is like, "Wow, this is some amazing coffee." It doesn't hitch you up like that.
Jeff: Right, exactly.
Forger: Strong, has a beautiful taste, and so we just exclusively became Death Wish Coffee fanatics. She buys the mugs and I happen to have the ... she gave me the one that says, Maybe swearing will help."
Jeff: "Maybe swearing will help."
Forger: She knows my former Marine background. We were having a flight readiness review for their first powered flight and I'm the director of flight tests for the company, so I'm up there presenting all this stuff. I'm also happen to be the pilot for that first powered flight, and I'm drinking coffee. I realize I've got a coffee mug that says Death Wish on it, and if people don't understand and all kinds of people are teleconferenced in, it may be sending the wrong message, so I quietly put it underneath the desk.
Jeff: It's like, "This is going to be a great flight. The test is going to go great," and everybody's just staring at Death Wish. That is absolutely hilarious. I just love that story, and I love your story because it is inspiring. I talk about this a lot on this show where life can get you down sometimes, and life can get stagnant even in just a normal job or in the military or in being a test pilot for NASA or working for United or whatever you're doing. You can look at that as a track in life and just continue down that path, but you're someone who is always looking to see what's next, to see what else can come from there. What's next for you?
Forger: That's a great question. I really look forward to the operational flights. I enjoyed my time at United Airlines. I had plenty of test pilots to tell me I was crazy and I was going to be bored. I like the challenge of trying to do a good flight and actually see smiling passengers get off the airplane at the end of the day. The difference now, though, is if you buy a ticket on a spaceship, you're buying a ticket because you want to go to space, not because you have to get to point B and flying cuts a couple of hours out of it, but you don't really want to fly. You want to be on that spaceship to fly, and the passengers are going to have an experience that's going to be incredible and it's one that they want to have, and I really look forward to sharing that with them.
Jeff: That's exciting.
Forger: And honestly at my age in life, I think that's a good way to go for a few years and then retire from.
Jeff: That's so, so exciting and very inspirational. What would you finally, and I'm sure you get this question sometimes, in today, in 2019 if someone wanted to follow in your footsteps and be a test pilot, what would you tell them? What would be advice you'd give them?
Forger: I think if you'd take a look at my career, it is ... it took me six decades to get to where I am, my ultimate goal of becoming an astronaut, and any road that takes almost 60 years to travel obviously has some twists and turns and potholes in it. And so you could maybe have planned better. It's one of those things where guys say, "Hey, if I would've known I would live this long, I would have taken care of better care of myself." If I would've known I was going to get this far, I would have actually maybe become an aeronautical engineer, gone to a school that offered that, studied harder. But then again, maybe then I'd just be an aeronautical engineer, wouldn't be where I am. So for me, my big advice is to enjoy the journey. Set your sights on something and then chase it, but enjoy the journey and have ... if an obstacle comes in your path, it doesn't necessarily mean it's the end, but if you enjoy the journey, you're still having fun and there can be alternate paths that come along later.
Jeff: That is excellent advice. I can't thank you enough for taking the time to talk with me. This has been inspiring and amazing to talk with you. And I just want to say, Astronaut Forger, thank you very much.
Forger: I want to say this is amazing to me because I mean, this was a Facebook comment yesterday and you just gave me the best interview in my life. So it's amazing how much research you've done and other great questions.