Sonic Wind: The Story of John Paul Stapp and How a Renegade Doctor Became the Fastest Man on Earth. By Craig Ryan. New York: Liverwright Publishing Corp., 2015. Photographs. Appendix. Notes. Index. Pp. 411. $27.95 ISBN 978-0-87140-677-4.
John Paul Stapp was a brave and innovative scientist and physician who contributed to aerospace medicine, aviation safety, the early U.S. space program, and the wellbeing of everyone who travels by motor vehicle. Craig Ryan previously wrote about high-altitude ballooning in The Pre-Astronauts and co-authored Come Up and Get Me, the autobiography of legendary Air Force test pilot, fighter pilot, and balloonist Joe Kittinger. So, he was already familiar with Stapp and well prepared to take on his multi-faceted career. The book is based on interviews, personal papers, key technical reports, and the publicity that Stapp's activities generated.
Stapp worked his way through college during the Great Depression, eventually earning a Ph.D. in biophysics from the University of Texas in 1940. He then became an MD at the University of Minnesota in 1944, before serving as an Army medical officer. The AAF soon began to reap the benefits of Stapp's education and talents at the Aero-Medical Laboratory, such as his discovery of how to avoid decompression sickness (the bends) on high-altitude flights. Captured German records provided some useful data in this and other areas, such as ejection seats, but he was appalled at the Nazis' inhumane abuse of concentration camp inmates, many of whom died gruesomely. Stapp used himself for the most dangerous human testing, no matter how hazardous. But he also relied on animals--including chimpanzees, bears, and pigs--an increasingly controversial practice.
Stapp is best known for his pioneering work between 1947 and 1955, on surviving rapid acceleration, wind blast, and deceleration using rocket-propelled sleds on specialized test tracks. Under primitive conditions on a remote corner of Muroc Field, California (later renamed Edwards AFB) and with better facilities and a more advanced test track featuring an ingenious water braking system at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, Stapp and his small team expanded the envelope on forces the human body can endure if properly restrained and protected. Stapp's findings were responsible for enormous improvements in cockpits, ejection seats, flight suits, helmets, shoulder harnesses, and parachutes. And passengers flying on military transports can blame...