Race pilots have a double whammy: They fly in hazardous conditions and can’t control the actions of other pilots in the event, and, like others involved in high-stakes sports, they are inclined to believe that luck plays a role. John Penney is known for dusting the competition in recent years at the Reno National Championship Air Races in the modified Grumman F8F-2 Bearcat Rare Bear. Penny’s superstitions started in Vietnam, when he flew combat missions in an A-7D Corsair out of Thailand. “A bunch of us had custom flying boots made by a merchant in downtown Korat, the ‘Good Luck Boot Shop.’ I wore mine on every combat mission and never took a hit from anti-aircraft guns, surface-to-air missiles, and such. That is not to say that wearing those boots necessarily brought me good luck and protected me from harm. However…” Years later, he says, when he started racing Rare Bear, his best wins and speed records, as well as his safest emergency landings, all happened when he was in those “Good Luck” boots. Last year he finished second in Rare Bear, behind a Strega flown by Steve Hinton Jr. On Penney’s feet that day were a brand of NASCAR/Indy racing shoes. “Enough of that,” he says. “This year my ‘Good Luck’ boots are going back on the race course.”
Superstition has even found its way into NASA, which has always selected its pilots from the military services. Space shuttle astronaut Robert “Hoot” Gibson, an ex-Navy fighter pilot, recalls that on launch day, the schedule gives the crew about 15 minutes between suiting up and heading to the pad. During that period, the astronauts would stand around a high table in the suit-up area, joined by the Chief of the Astronaut Office and the Director of Flight Operations. A deck of cards would appear, and they would play a homegrown game called Possum Fargo. Five-card hands were dealt. No betting, no further cards. Just a rapid deal. Whoever had the lowest hand won the round.
“It’s like poker, 180 degrees out,” says Gibson. “The lowest you could get was 2,3,4,5,7 [a 6 gave you a straight]. That was the winningest hand.” The crew could not leave until the commander of the mission won a hand—for good luck. “You were not ready to walk out of there until he won,” says Gibson. He doesn’t know who created the game or who named it. But he played it on every one of his five missions.
Four-time shuttle astronaut Tom Jones has a slightly different recollection of Possum Fargo. “We watched the commander play the card game in the suit-up room against the chief of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate,” says Jones. “Rest of the crew does not play, and I don’t know the game. My opinion is that the kind of people I crewed with did not get there by being superstitious, so it’s a trait bred out of the astronaut corps for the most part.” But he admits that the commander had to get that low hand before launch. “Once you lose, you can go out to the pad,” says Jones. Or win, he means, with that lousy hand.
As a magazine reporter, I’m not sure what to make of such superstitions. I’m not superstitious myself, but I once knew this copy editor….
Michael Klesius is an Air & Space associate editor.