10 All-Time Great Pilots

Machines alone could not have pushed the airplane forward

Doolittle Curtiss_Racer.jpg
Jimmy Doolittle with his Curtiss R3C-2 Racer, the plane in which he won the 1925 Schneider Trophy race. NASA

WHEN WE ASSEMBLED THE FOLLOWING LISTS OF GREAT PILOTS (and the list of milestone flights that follows), we faced the same dilemma that Von Hardesty, a National Air and Space Museum aeronautics curator, faced as author of Great Aviators and Epic Flights (Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc., 2003). "If you mention Jean Mermoz," Hardesty writes in the introduction, "Why not Henry Guillaumet, who crashed and survived a six-day ordeal in the Andes? If you cover the crossing of the English Channel by Louis Blériot, why not the transcontinental aerial trek of Cal Rodgers? When the chapter outline was shown to one curator, he remarked, 'The problem is who to omit!' Such an observation genuinely haunted all of us who designed and worked on this book."

Amen, we say.

1. James H. Doolittle

At age 15, Doolittle built a glider, jumped off a cliff, and crashed. Undaunted, he hauled the pieces home, stuck them back together, and returned to the cliff. After his second plunge, there was nothing left to salvage. In 1922, Lieutenant Doolittle made a solo crossing of the continental United States in a de Havilland DH-4 in under 24 hours. The Army sent him back to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where in 1925 he earned a doctorate in aeronautical engineering. Two years later, he climbed to 10,000 feet in a Curtiss Hawk, pushed the stick forward until he saw red (negative Gs make blood pool in the head), and performed the first outside loop. In 1929, aided by Paul Kollsman’s altimeter and Elmer Sperry’s artificial horizon and directional gyro, he flew from takeoff to landing while referring only to instruments. “Aviation has perhaps taken its greatest single step in safety,” declared the New York Times.

He next took up air racing and collected the major trophies: the Schneider in 1925 with a Curtiss seaplane, the Bendix in 1931 with the Laird Super Solution, and the Thompson in 1932 in one of the treacherous Gee Bees, when he also set the world’s landplane speed record. With this triumph, he observed: “I have yet to hear of anyone engaged in this work dying of old age,” and retired from racing.

In 1942 Doolittle was sent off to train crews for a mysterious mission. He ended up leading the entire effort. On April 18, 1942, 15 North American B-25s staggered off a carrier and bombed Tokyo. Most ditched off the Chinese coast or crashed; other crew members had bailed out, including Doolittle. Though he was crushed by what he called his “failure,” Doolittle was awarded the title Brigadier General and a Congressional Medal of Honor, which, he confided to General Henry “Hap” Arnold, he would spend the rest of his life earning.

2. Noel Wien

Thanks to Noel Wien, Alaska has a higher ratio of aircraft and pilots to residents than any other state. In the 1920s, almost single-handedly, Wien introduced the airplane to Alaska, and over some 50 years, aircraft became virtually the primary mode of transport in the vast and thinly populated state, which is twice the size of Texas and infinitely less hospitable in climate and geography.

Wien, a native of Minnesota, arrived in Anchorage in June 1924 at age 25 with his first aircraft, an open-cockpit Standard J-1 biplane. Being the only flier in Alaska that summer and the next, and with little competition for a number of years thereafter, just about every flight he made was a first, starting with a flight from Anchorage over the Alaskan Range to Fairbanks. Wien was the first in Alaska and Canada to fly north of the Arctic Circle, and made the first commercial flight between Fairbanks and Nome. He was first to fly the Arctic Coast commercially, the first to fly from North America to Siberia via the Bering Strait, and ultimately the first to fly a year-round service, throughout the vicious winters. All this with sketchy maps, no radio, and virtually no paved landing strips.

Wien got so good, writes author Ira Harkey in Pioneer Bush Pilot: The Story of Noel Wien, he could land the Standard in a mere 300 feet. Surveyor Sam O. White said: “I don’t belive there was ever anyone around here who could get everything out of an aiplane like Noel Wien did. It was like the wings were attached to his own shoulders.”

Wien’s flights broke other records as well. In 1927 he noted, “the last boat leaving in October didn’t mean isolation from the States until the first boat next June. For the first time ever, Nome got mail and fresh foods for Thanksgiving. Everybody looked forward to getting Christmas mail and foods, but they were disappointed—I was down on a lake in a blizzard Christmas Day.”

Wien flew everything and everybody to everywhere: bodies to burial sites, tourists to stunning views, gold dust from prospectors to market, sick folks to hospitals, trappers and dogs to hunting grounds. He lost an eye to infection in 1946, but he was able to hold on to his medical certificate and continued flying commercially until 1955. Wien stopped counting flight hours at 11,600.

3. Robert A. Hoover

After his Spitfire was shot down by a Focke-Wulf 190 over the Mediterranean in 1944, Hoover was captured and spent 16 months in the Stalag Luft 1 prison in Barth, Germany. He eventually escaped, appropriated an Fw 190 (which, of course, he had never piloted), and flew to safety in Holland. After the war Hoover signed up to serve as an Army Air Forces test pilot, flying captured German and Japanese aircraft. He became buddies with Chuck Yeager; Hoover was Yeager’s backup pilot in the Bell X-1 program, and he flew chase in a Lockheed P-80 when Yeager first exceeded Mach 1.

Hoover moved on to North American Aviation, where he testflew the T-28 Trojan, FJ-2 Fury, AJ-1 Savage, F-86 Sabre, and F-100 Super Sabre, and in the mid-1950s he began flying North American aircraft, both civil and military, at airshows. Jimmy Doolittle called Hoover “the greatest stick-and-rudder man who ever lived.”

Hoover is best known for the “energy management” routine he flew in a Shrike Commander, a twin-engine business aircraft. This fluid demonstration ends with Hoover shutting down both engines and executing a loop and an eight-point hesitation slow roll as he heads back to the runway. He touches down on one tire, then the other, and coasts precisely to the runway center.

Despite the numerous awards accorded him, Hoover remains humble enough to laugh at himself. He notes in his autobiography, Forever Flying, that in the 1950s, after showing off his Bugatti racer to the neighborhood kids, he asked, “Well, what do you think?” One youngster’s reply: “I think you’ve got the biggest nose I’ve ever seen.”

4. Charles A. Lindbergh

The young man who would give aviation its biggest boost since the Wright brothers got his start in aviation as a wingwalker, barnstormer, and parachutist. His proficiency in the latter art paid off when he had to bail out of a trainer during his Army stint and another three times while flying the Chicago-St. Louis mail run for the Robertson Air Corporation.

Any collection of photos of Lindbergh can easily be divided into pre-Atlantic crossing and post. There are many broad smiles before he flew solo nonstop from New York to Paris in May 1927; not many thereafter. Lindbergh was assaulted by the media and besieged by the adulation of the entire United States. By 1929, when Lindbergh was surveying cross-country routes for Transcontinental Air Transport and posing with movie stars to publicize the airline, the smile had vanished.

Lindbergh made his greatest survey flight in 1931 for Pan Am, when he and his wife and radio operator/navigator Anne Morrow set out in a Lockheed Sirius on floats to establish the shortest air route from New York to China via Churchill in Canada, Nome, Petropavlosk, Tokyo, and Nanking. Two years later the pair scoped out north and south Atlantic cities for operational facilities on Pan Am’s transatlantic routes. This round-the-Atlantic flight in the Sirius encompassed landings in Greenland, Iceland, Sweden, Russia, Denmark, Scotland, Portugal, the Canary Islands, Brazil, and Puerto Rico.

In 1944, Lindbergh tested the Vought F4U Corsair in the field—the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific—and flew several missions with the U.S. Marines, downing a Japanese Zero. In New Guinea, he demonstrated to Army Air Forces pilots a fuel-saving technique that extended the range of the Lockheed P-38 from 575 to 750 miles. Charles Lindbergh’s flight to Paris was just the beginning of his career.

His daughter Reeve revealed Lindbergh’s method and his mastery when she recalled flying with him in an Aeronca Champion whose engine had quit: “He was persuading and willing and coaxing that airplane into doing what he wanted it to do, leaning it like a bobsled right down where it could safely land. He could feel its every movement as though it were his own body. My father wasn’t flying the airplane, he was being the airplane. That’s how he always done it.”

5. Charles E. Yeager

As a young Army Air Forces pilot in training, Yeager had to overcome airsickness before he went on to down 12 German fighters, including a Messerschmitt 262, the first jet fighter. After the war, still in the AAF, he trained as a test pilot at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, where he got to fly the United States’ first jet fighter, the Bell P-59, which he took on a joyride, flying low over the main street of his West Virginia hometown.

Yeager then went to Muroc Field in California, where Larry Bell introduced him and fellow test pilot Bob Hoover to the Bell XS-1. In his autobiography, Yeager, he says that Bell, in assuring them that a deadstick landing would be a piece of cake, bragged that “[W]ithout fuel aboard, she handles like a bird.”

“A live bird or a dead one?” Hoover asked.

In Yeager’s hands, the bullet-shaped XS-1 performed as advertised, and on October 14, 1947, ignoring the pain of two cracked ribs, he reached Mach 1.07 and lived to tell about it. The X-1 was not designed to take off under its own power; it was air-dropped from a mothership. In January 1949, Yeager fired up the X-1’s four rockets on the runway. “There was no ride ever in the world like that one!” he later wrote. The aircraft accelerated so rapidly that when the landing gear was retracted, an actuating rod snapped and the wing flaps blew off.

He also managed to fly the Douglas X-3, Northrop X-4, and Bell X-5, as well as the prototype for the Boeing B-47 swept-wing jet bomber. The Bell X-1A nearly ate him for breakfast one December day in 1953. Yeager thought he could coax the X-1A to Mach 2.3 and bust Scott Crossfield’s Mach 2 record, achieved in the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket. At 80,000 feet and Mach 2.4, the nose yawed, a wing rose, and the X-1A went berserk “in what pilots call going divergent in all three axes,” Yeager wrote. “I called it hell.” He was able to recover at 25,000 feet.

Yeager was sent to Okinawa in 1954 to test a Soviet MiG-15 that a North Korean had used to defect. When he stopped test-flying that year, he had logged 10,000 hours in 180 types of military aircraft.

6. Scott Crossfield

When Navy fighter pilot and flight instructor Scott Crossfield heard about the Bell Experimental Sonic XS-1 under construction in 1947, he wrote to its manufacturer proposing that he be named its first test pilot; he offered to fly it for free. Bell did not reply, but no matter: In 1950 Crossfield was hired by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and sent to Edwards Air Force Base in California to fly the world’s hottest X-planes, including the X-1, the tail-less Northrop X-4, the Douglas D-558-I Skystreak and D-558-II Skyrocket, the Convair XF-92A (which he pronounced “under-powered, under- geared, underbraked, and overweight”), and the Bell X-5. He made 100 rocket-plane flights in all. On November 20, 1953, he took the D-558-II to Mach 2.04, becoming the first pilot to fly at twice the speed of sound.

He gained a reputation as a pilot whose flights were jinxed: On his first X-4 flight, he lost both engines; in the Skyrocket, he flamed out; the windshield iced over in the X-1. After a deadstick landing in a North American F-100, he lost hydraulic pressure and the Super Sabre slammed into a hangar wall. Forever after, Chuck Yeager crowed, “The sonic wall was mine; the hangar wall was Crossfield’s.”

Despite the many thrills at Edwards in the Golden Age of X-Planes, Crossfield was seduced by an aircraft on the North American drawing board. In 1955, he quit the NACA and signed on with the manufacturer, where he found his calling with the sinister-looking X-15. Crossfield made the first eight flights of the X-15, learning its idiosyncrasies, and logged another six after NASA and Air Force pilots joined the program. On flight number 4, the fuselage buckled right behind the cockpit on landing, but he had his closest call on the ground, while testing the XLR-99 engine in June 1960. “I put the throttle in the stowed position and pressed the reset switch,” Crossfield wrote in his autobiography Always Another Dawn. “It was like pushing the plunger on a dynamite detonator. X-15 number three blew up with incredible force.” Fire engines rushed to extinguish the blaze, and Crossfield was extracted from the cockpit. “The only casualty was the crease in my trousers,” he told reporters. “The firemen got them wet when they sprayed the airplane with water.” You sure it was the firemen? a reporter asked. Yes, he was sure, he aid. “I pictured the headline: ‘Space Ship Explodes; Pilot Wets Pants.’ ”

7. Erich Hartmann

Unlike the rest of the pilots in “Ten Great,” Erich Hartmann flew only one aircraft type, and did almost all his flying during World War II. But his downing a mindboggling 352 enemy aircraft and earning the title of the Greatest Ace of All Time, No Kidding, places him on this list fair and square.

Hartmann’s mother taught him to fly gliders in his teens. He enlisted in the Luftwaffe in 1940, and his profiency at gunnery school marked him as a rising star. When he arrived on the Eastern Front at age 20, he was nicknamed Bubi (boy) by fellow pilots, and took to the Messerschmitt Me 109 like a duck to water. Hartmann’s winning technique was to fly so close to the enemy that he couldn’t miss. In November 1942 he scored his first victory, and within a year had downed 148 aircraft. The number of medals and awards seemed to keep pace with the number of fallen aircraft, which reached 301 in August 1944.

His superiors deemed him too valuable an asset to remain in combat (he was forced down 16 times) and called him back to test the Messerschmitt Me 262. But Hartmann was dedicated to fighting the Soviets and finagled a reassignment to the front. He was made a group commander and downed another 51 aircraft before Germany surrendered. In less than three years, he had flown 825 combat sorties.

Hartmann spent 10 years in a Russian prison. Three years after his release in 1955, he was commanding West Germany’s first all-jet fighter wing. He remained with the air force for another 15 years.

8. Anthony W. LeVier

Along with the P-38, the U-2, and the SR-71, Tony LeVier was one of Lockheed’s most prized legends. LeVier cut his teeth on air racing and placed second in the 1939 Thompson Trophy Race. The next year he was hired as a test pilot by General Motors; then he moved to Lockheed.

LeVier flight-tested the P-38 Lightning to the ragged edges of its envelope and was sent to England to teach Eighth Air Force pilots how to get the most out of it. On one harrowing flight, in a 60-degree dive at over 500 mph initiated at 35,000 feet, the airplane started to nose over; LeVier hauled back on the stick, trying to maintain dive angle. What saved him were dive-recovery flaps that engineers had just installed to prevent this very problem. At 13,000 feet, LeVier slowly regained control. “My strain gauges were set for 100 percent of limit load,” he reported in Test Pilots by Richard Hallion, “and they were all over 100 and all the red warning lights were on when I finally got out of the dive.”

Next up: the XP-80A, the nation’s first operational jet fighter. In 1945, by which time he was Lockheed’s chief test pilot, an XP-80’s turbine disintegrated and took the tail off the airplane. LeVier bailed out and crushed two vertebrae upon landing, an injury that grounded him for six months. He later called it “the most horrifying experience of my whole flying career.”

After World War II ended, LeVier worked with the model 75 Saturn and XR60-1 Constitution transports, and on the side bought a P-38 and got back into air racing. In 1946 he again placed second in the Thompson race. LeVier was the first to fly the XF-90, the YF-94 Starfire, the XF-104 Starfighter, and the U-2. (In Kelly: More Than My Share of It All, Lockheed designer Kelly Johnson recounts that when LeVier first saw the F-104, he asked, “Where are the wings?”—a question a great many others at least wondered about.) In 1950 he piloted the first Lockheed aircraft to surpass Mach 1, an F-90, which he dove at an angle of 60 degrees to reach 900 mph. When LeVier retired in 1974, he had made the first flights of 20 aircraft, had flown some 240 types of aircraft, and had survived eight crashes and a mid-air collision.

9. Jean Mermoz

In January 1921, on his third try, Jean Mermoz got his pilot’s license. Three years later, he signed up as a pilot with Lignes Aeriennes Latécoère, and set out to attain the goal of aircraft designer Pierre Latécoère: to create an airmail line linking Europe with Africa and South America.

In 1926, Mermoz had engine trouble over the Mauritanian desert and made an emergency landing. He was captured by nomadic Moors and held prisoner until a ransom was paid—a common practice and one of the many torments on the Latécoère airmail routes, which linked Toulouse to Barcelona, Casablanca, and Dakar. Mermoz was lucky—five Latécoère pilots were killed by Moors. Other hazards: the hostile Sahara, impenetrable Andes, and 150-mph winds that roiled over the southern Argentine coast.

In 1927, Lignes Aeriennes Latécoère became Compagnie Général Aéropostale, and Mermoz took charge of the South American routes. He made Aéropostale’s first South American night flight in April 1928 from Natal in Brazil to Buenos Aires in Argentina, along a route unmarked by any sort of beacon. After he showed the way, mail delivery was no longer restricted to daylight-only operations.

Mermoz next tackled shortening the Argentina-to-Chile route; pilots had to make a thousand-mile detour to get around the Andes. With mechanic Alexandre Collenot, Mermoz set out in a Latécoère 25 monoplane and found an updraft that carried them through a mountain pass, but a downdraft smashed the aircraft onto a plateau at 12,000 feet. After determining that they could not hike out, Mermoz cleared a crude path to the edge of the precipice and removed from the aircraft anything that wasn’t bolted down. He and Collenot strapped themselves in, and Mermoz got the airplane rolling down the path. In effect, they dove off the mountain, and Mermoz pointed the nose straight down, hoping to gain flying speed. Again, luck was with him. And in July 1929, with the acquisition of Potez 25 open-cockpit biplanes that had a much higher ceiling than the Laté 25, Mermoz and Henry Guillaumet opened a scheduled route between Buenos Aires and Santiago.

In early 1930, Aéropostale looked to bridge the Atlantic. Mermoz, in a new Latécoère 28 float-equipped monoplane, took off on May 12 from St. Louis, Senegal, with a navigator, a radio operator, and a load of mail. As night fell, they flew into a series of waterspouts that rose into stormy clouds. In Wind, Sand and Stars, published in 1940, fellow Aéropostale pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote: “Through these uninhabited ruins Mermoz made his way, gliding slantwise from one channel of light to the next, flying for four hours through these corridors of moonlight. And this spectacle was so overwhelming that only after he had got through the Black Hole did Mermoz awaken to the fact that he had not been afraid….”

Mermoz flew 1,900 miles in 19.5 hours, and landed in the Natal harbor the next morning. “Pioneering thus, Mermoz had cleared the desert, the mountains, the night, and the sea,” Saint-Exupéry wrote. “He had been forced down more than once…. And each time that he got safely home, it was but to start out again.”

The U.S. press called Mermoz “France’s Lindbergh.” On December 7, 1936, Mermoz departed Africa in a fourengine seaplane, bound for Brazil, on the weekly mail run. It was his 28th Atlantic crossing. Neither he nor his crew were seen again.

10. Jacqueline Auriol

The daughter-in-law of Vincent Auriol, president of France from 1947 to 1954, Jacqueline Auriol learned to fly so she could escape the stuffy protocol of the Palais Elysée. Her mentor, instructor Raymond Guillaume, imbued her with a passion for aerobatics. After the crash of a Scan 30 amphibian in which she was a passenger, she faced 22 surgeries to put her face back together; yet, her first words in the ambulance rushing her to the hospital were “Will it be long before I can fly again?”

When Auriol recovered, she earned a helicopter rating, and in 1950, she became the first woman pilot admitted to France’s military Flight Test Centre. In 1951, Auriol and U.S. pilot Jacqueline Cochran began swapping speed records: Auriol broke Cochran’s record, set in a P-51 Mustang, by flying a Vampire jet at 508 mph. She set a new record in 1952 in a Sud-Est Mistral, again in 1953 in a Dassault Mystére IV, and in 1955 she reclaimed the record from Cochran in a Mystére IV N. For the last three of these flights, she was awarded the Harmon Trophy for the greatest aeronautical feat of the year—in 1952, at Cochran’s request. In 1962, Auriol reclaimed the record from Cochran in a Dassault Mirage IIIC; Cochran promptly took it back with a Lockheed TF-104G. The following year, Auriol topped her in a Mirage IIIR at 1,266 mph.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.