What Were They Doing at 25?

Some were already heroes. Others were nowhere near where you would have expected them to be.

Air Force Thunderbird pilot Nicole Malachowski, the first woman to fly with a U.S. military high-performance demonstration team. US Air Force

Before they were heroes, hotshots, or game changers, they were just pilots, for the most part. Some of them had made their mark in their twenties. Most didn’t until well afterward.

Browse the gallery below to find out what some famous aviation/ space figures were doing at the age of 25 (and see more in our April/May 2011 issue). We hope a few of the stories might offer some insight into who the person was on the ground before the legend took off.

Michael Klesius is an associate editor at Air & Space.

When he turned 25 in May 1933, Stewart was making appearances in Broadway plays such as The Spring in Autumn and All Good Americans. Though he’s remembered for leading roles in films such as It’s a Wonderful Life, he had a passion for flying (and played Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis). In 1935, he earned his private license, and in 1938 his commercial license. During World War II he proved he was the real deal: Stewart trained pilots Stateside to fly B-17 Flying Fortresses, then commanded B-24 Liberators on bombing missions over Europe. He finished the war as a colonel, having earned a Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters, an Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, and the French Croix de Guerre. USAF
When he was 25, he spent most of the year training for his Vostok 2 orbital flight. On August 6, 1961, a month shy of his 26th birthday, Titov became the second person to orbit Earth, and the fourth to go into space (after Yuri Gagarin and Americans Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom). Titov (with John Glenn and President Kennedy) also became the person with the most time in space (25 hours, 18 minutes), a record that stood for another year, and the first to sleep in space and to get space sick. He died in 2000, and remains the youngest person to travel in space, and the only 25-year-old to go. NASA
Raised on a Michigan farm, she turned 25 in 1900, not long after she had moved to San Francisco to begin a career in journalism. She didn’t stay long, heading to New York where she worked for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly as a photojournalist. A decade later, bitten by the flying bug, she took lessons at the Moisant School of Aviation on Long Island, New York, and became the first woman in the United States to earn a pilot’s license. The following year, 1912, Quimby became the first woman to fly an airplane across the English Channel, less than three years after Louis Blériot had been the first person to do it. NASM (SI NEG. #00129297)
This guy won’t even turn 25 until August 2012. In 2009, at 22, Hinton (shown with his father) became the youngest person to win the Unlimited class at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada. What does he think he might do at 25? “I may be back at the Chino Airport working for my father’s company, Fighter Rebuilders, as well as volunteering at the Planes of Fame Air Museum. I’d like to continue competitively racing at the Reno Air Races, and hope by the time I’m 25 to have developed my skills as a better pilot. The list of what I’d like to accomplish is large, including finishing up all my ratings and flying jets, as well as possibly seeking a world speed record, but we’ll see what the cards hold in store for me.” Tyson Rininger
When the world’s most successful fighter pilot celebrated his 25th birthday, in May 1917, it would be his last. He had gotten his first ride in an airplane not two years before, but by the time he was 25, Richthofen, known as the Red Baron, had already accumulated 52 aerial victories. A couple months later, in July, he almost met his end when a bullet carved a groove in his skull, temporarily blinding and disabling him. His luck ran out near Amiens in northern France two weeks before his 26th birthday: After 80 confirmed victories, he was killed during a low-level pursuit by a bullet many believe was fired by a soldier on the ground. NASM (SI NEG. #SI-76-13317~P)
He grew up on a Kansas farm, with no schooling past the 5th grade. Instead, he developed a keen talent for fixing machinery. Later, the mechanic became a successful car dealer in Enid, Oklahoma. Cessna turned 25 a year after the Wrights flew, but wasn’t inspired by airplanes until reading about Blériot’s 1909 English Channel crossing. In 1911, Cessna attended his first flying exhibition, in Oklahoma City, and built his first airplane, the Silverwing. By 1917, he had moved his manufacturing operation to Wichita. In 1972, the company he started became the first airplane manufacturer in the world to build its 100,000th airplane, and today it is approaching its 200,000th. Kansas State Historical Society
Well before he founded Space Exploration Technologies in 2002, which put the first big (180-foot-tall), privately constructed and launched rocket into orbit, the 39-year-old Musk was part of the dot-com boom: “At 25 I was building part of the early Internet with Zip2, an early version of what Google Maps is today, and helped bring newspapers online. Two and a half years later, Zip2 was acquired for over $300 million in cash. I put the proceeds I received from that sale towards creating PayPal.” In 2002, eBay bought PayPal for $1.5 billion in stock, and from then on, Musk turned his attention to electric cars and spaceflight. Courtesy Tesla
The highest-scoring U.S. ace of World War I (26 victories), Rickenbacker was a professional auto racer when he turned 25 in the fall of 1915. He was ranked fifth in the nation that year, won $24,000 in prize money, and formed his own racing team. In 1916, the 25-year-old Rickenbacker climbed to third place with winnings of $60,000. In November of that year, a chance meeting with Glenn Martin led to Rickenbacker’s first hop in an airplane. NASM (SI NEG. #SI-73-7627~P)
The creator of the Learjet turned 25 in June 1927. Working at Universal Battery in Chicago in the mid-1920s, he got a better offer from another company, and went to his boss to use it as leverage for a pay raise. “I’d like to live a little better,” said Lear (right, with his son in 1964). “I wonder if you can pay me more money.” His boss replied, “Lear, your problem is, you have a champagne appetite and a beer income.” Lear replied, “You certainly hit the nail right on the head. I feel I can do something about the income. I don’t think I can do much about the appetite.” With no high school education, but with a knack for electronics and business—Lear also invented the car radio, or the “Motorola”—he took the new job. By age 29, he had enough money to buy his first airplane. Courtesy Bill Lear Jr.
In the year that the Wright brothers first flew, Boeing, 22, left Yale University without graduating and headed west to Grays Harbor, Washington, where he learned the logging business on his own, working land he had inherited. When he turned 25, in October 1906, Boeing still had never seen an airplane. His first ride in one came in the summer of 1914. Smitten, he financed the construction of his first airplane, a seaplane, in a boathouse on Lake Union in Seattle. Boeing
Born in Kiev when the city belonged to Imperial Russia, Sikorsky (foreground, with a helper) turned 25 in May 1914. He had already built a helicopter, which couldn’t lift a pilot, as well as the world’s first four-engine airplane, the Grand, which included an enclosed cabin, a washroom, upholstered chairs, and a balcony for passengers. The 25-year-old Sikorsky then designed the larger Ilya Mourometz, a World War I bomber. Seventy were eventually built. It was five more years before he emigrated to the United States, and almost a decade before he founded the Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corporation near Roosevelt Field on Long Island. NASM (SI NEG. #SI-90-3716~PM)
The man who led the first aircraft-carrier-based bomber attack on mainland Japan in 1942 had taken his knocks in airplanes. In August 1922, the 25-year-old Lieutenant Doolittle attempted a cross-country flight from Florida. “I waved to the crowd,” he later wrote, “pulled my goggles over my eyes, and started down the beach.” A wheel caught in the sand, and he headed for the water, where his de Havilland DH-4B flipped tail-over-tea-kettle. “I vowed I’d never tell anyone of any future record attempts because there was always the risk of failure, which was bad publicity, not only for me, but for the Air Service, too.” The next month Doolittle became the first person to fly across the country in less than 24 hours. NASM (SI NEG. #SI-81-876~P)
He created Voyager, which flew nonstop and unrefueled around the globe in 1987; and SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 became the first privately built vehicle to take a person to space. Long before these and many other achievements, Rutan (shown in the back seat, behind brother Dick) was a flight test project engineer for the Air Force. At age 25, in 1968, he worked at Edwards Air Force Base on fighter spin tests and the LTV XC-142 VSTOL (vertical/short-takeoff-and-landing) transport. He went on to establish the Rutan Aircraft Factory and Scaled Composites, and eventually sold 12,000 sets of plans for his popular homebuilt VariEze and Long-EZ pusher-prop canard airplanes. Soon, Virgin Galactic will send clients on suborbital flights in Rutan’s VSS Enterprise rocketplane. Courtesy Scaled Composites
The first woman to fly with a U.S. military high-performance demonstration squadron, Malachowski was Air Force Thunderbird pilot number 3 for the 2006 and 2007 seasons. In September 1999, she turned 25 as a first lieutenant flying the Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle at the Royal Air Force Lakenheath base in the United Kingdom. “So, 1999 for me hinged on basically learning to be the best F-15E wingman I could be,” she says. That year she began dating husband Paul, an F-15E weapons systems operator. Today, with more than 180 combat hours, and children, she’s back in the F-15E at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina. “If you add on eight-month-old twins,” she says “it’s downright crazy at times.” USAF

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.