Sonic Wind: The Story of John Paul Stapp and How a Renegade Doctor Became the Fastest Man on Earth

Craig Ryan. Norton/Liveright, $27.95 (384p) ISBN 978-0-87140-677-4

Adventure writer Ryan (Magnificent Failure) rescues the brilliant, obsessive John Paul Stapp (1911–1999) from obscurity with this lively biography. Stapp made the cover of Time magazine in 1955, thanks to dangerous high-speed experiments in which he used himself as the subject. Unlike the theatrical efforts of daredevils such as Evel Knievel and Super Dave Osborne, Stapp’s feats led to important scientific advances. In 1946, Stapp, an Army Air Corps medical consultant, was assigned to simulate airplane crashes in order to improve the dismal pilot survival rate. The experiment that followed involved accelerating a rocket-propelled sled to high speed before abruptly applying the brakes. Crash dummies shattered, chimpanzees died, and Stapp himself broke bones. But in 1954 he reached 632 mph and stopped in 1.4 seconds, enduring (barely) the equivalent of hitting a brick wall at 120 mph and proving that experts had wildly underrated human endurance. “All you had to do,” Ryan remarks, “was protect [pilots] and restrain them effectively, and they could take almost anything.” Ryan delivers fine explanations of technical details, byzantine military politics, and Stapp’s bumpy personal life, and though he fails to explain Stapp’s suicidal bravery (superiors wisely forbade planned faster runs), readers will share his admiration for Stapp’s achievements. [em](Aug.) [/em]
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