Flying high in ‘The Lonely Sky’

Local author Jacqueline Hazard Bridgeman rereleases a book on her late husband’s years as a high flying test pilot, whose efforts landed him on the cover of Time magazine.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

Many Malibuites have known Jacqueline Hazard Bridgeman as a longtime doyenne of local theater, as cofounder of the Malibu Stage Company 20 years ago and major benefactor of numerous charities and cultural ventures.

But they might not know the rest of the story: the self-described party girl and dazzling siren who had numerous adventure-seeking suitors, journalist whose newspaper, the Malibu Monitor, ended up being absorbed by this journal, wife of one of America’s “Right Stuff” high-altitude test pilots and author of a book about those high-flying sky cowboys of the ‘50s that received more than 150 rave reviews and a glowing write-up in Time magazine.

That book, “The Lonely Sky,” first published in 1955 by Henry Holt and Company, has been rereleased 55 years later. In an interview with The Malibu Times, Bridgeman talked about what it was like to rub shoulders with those early aviators while researching the book.

“Those pilots were a different breed entirely,” she recalled. “NASA test pilots now are engineers and scientists. But back then they were combat pilots who would push the edges of the envelope. They didn’t know if they were going to survive the day’s flight schedule.”

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Post-World War II, American aviation firms were racing to conquer space travel. Chuck Yeager famously flew Bell Aircraft’s X-1 rocket plane at Mach 1 speed, smashing the sound barrier. In 1951, Douglas Aircraft Co. was looking to exceed Mach 2 with its D-558-2 “Skyrocket.” They selected Malibu surfer Bill Bridgeman, a Navy flight veteran and experimental test pilot, to fly the needle-nosed craft. He broke speed and altitude records and became “the fastest man on Earth,” flying at 1,300 miles an hour more than 14 miles above land, which landed him on the cover of Time magazine. Yeager and Bridgeman were national heroes-men who dared to go where no man had gone before, all in a day’s work.

In 1953, Jacqueline Hazard Bridgeman was married to Paul Weaver, with whom she bought the local newspaper, the Palisadian-Post. She interviewed Bill Bridgeman for a story and the article so pleased the pilot that when Holt publishers asked him to write a book, he proposed Jacqueline for the job.

“I had never even been on an airplane and didn’t know anything about flying,” she said. “I had actually dated Bill a couple of times before I met Paul. But Bill was strictly professional. He didn’t ask me to write the book with him because he wanted to be near me. I, however, was dazzled.”

During the course of a year, Jacqueline interviewed the pilot and conducted research during the day, writing at night and translating flight jargon into “layperson’s language.”

“I would just ask Bill questions and write,” Jacqueline said. “He would look over it and say yes or no. I sent my editor the first chapter and he proposed a couple of changes but then they just printed what I wrote word for word.”

During that time, she and Weaver separated and he left to live in Europe.

Though their year of work together was entirely platonic, Jacqueline fell in love with Bridgeman.

“I finally broke down in tears and told him,” she said. “Bill insisted I be ‘a good little soldier’ and finish, and I did. It was kind of sexy.”

She submitted the book to her publisher and left Malibu to join her ex-husband in Southern France. When “The Lonely Sky” hit bookshelves, it received overwhelmingly positive reviews nationwide. Orville Prescott of The New York Times wrote, “The excitement is magnificently conveyed … one reads with breathless attention.”

Jacqueline knew nothing of this until she picked up weeks-old mail at a post-office in Antibes and found stacks of news clippings, raving about “one of the year’s most exciting adventure stories.”

The chapters describing the flights that changed human history are written in an immediate, first-person presence so that the reader experiences every on-the-edge-second of a pilot whose next moment might bring death. When Yeager, who would monitor Bridgeman’s disorienting, nerve-wracking flights, guided him to a landing from a B-29 “Mother” craft, he was nonchalant after determining Bridgeman was safe.

“You’re on your own,” Yeager reportedly said after talking Bridgeman into a landing on the dry lakebeds near Edwards Air Force Base. “Let’s see you screw this up by yourself.”

Jacqueline was attracted to action-oriented men. She dated a bullfighter, a racecar driver, a homicide detective and a football player. But after she returned to California, she met up again with Bridgeman. This time, she didn’t let him get away. They married and lived in Malibu. Bridgeman left Douglas and tested commercial aircraft for Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp. In 1968, on a routine test flight to Catalina Island, Bridgeman’s plane went down. His body was never found.

Hazard Bridgeman has spent the years since then immersed in theater and charity work. She edited books for HarperCollins. Later this year, a play she is producing, Oren Safdie’s “The Bilbao Effect,” will open Off Broadway. “The Lonely Sky” will be featured at the Los Angeles Times’ Festival of Books next month.

Local author and friend of Jacqueline Robert Ahola said he is pleased to see her book recognized again.

“Jackie caught the heart and soul of heroic aerospace exploration,” Ahola said. “She was a woman and a writer ahead of her time.”

Jacqueline Bridgeman believes the world needs heroes these days.

“There’s no security in freedom,” she said of her late husband. “And freedom means reaching beyond what you think you can do.”

“The Lonely Sky” is available at www.iUniverse.com and at Diesel, A Bookstore. All proceeds from book sales will be donated to Doctors Without Borders.

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