Remembering Edward Lewis “Whitey” Feightner

Curator Laurence Burke looks back on the extensive career of Navy pilot Edward L. “Whitey” Feightner.

Navy pilot Edward Lewis “Whitey” Feightner (National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution)
Navy pilot Edward Lewis “Whitey” Feightner (National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution)

Edward Lewis “Whitey” Feightner, 1919-2020

Edward L. “Whitey” Feightner was a man who caught the flying bug in college and just wanted to keep flying. He joined the U.S. Navy and shot down at least nine airplanes during World War II. After the war, the Navy made him a test pilot. He ended up flying and even developing many of the Navy’s newest designs (including helicopters) until his retirement in 1974.

Feightner was born October 14, 1919, in Lima, Ohio. He attended Findlay College in nearby Findlay, Ohio and learned to fly, earning his private pilot’s license in 1940.

When he graduated from college in 1941, he really just wanted to keep flying. Expecting to be drafted soon, he initially tried to join the U.S. Army Air Corps, but faced a six-month wait to begin training. While hanging around the Findlay airport one day, he saw a Naval Aviator land his North American SNJ, change into his crisp white uniform in the hangar, meet up with an attractive woman, and leave with her in a nice convertible. Observing the same events, his flight instructor suggested he check out the Navy flight training program.

The Navy could take him straight away, so he enlisted in U.S. Naval Reserve on June 16, 1941 (just hours after graduating college), and entered the Naval Aviation Cadet Training Program. Feightner completed his primary training on April 3, 1942, earning his commission as an ensign and his Naval Aviator’s wings. He then went through advanced flight training and carrier qualifications at NAS Norfolk.

WWII Combat

The Navy assigned him to fly F4F Wildcats with VF-3 aboard USS Yorktown (CV-5), but Yorktown sunk (June 7, 1942) following the Battle of Midway before he could report. The survivors of VF-3 regrouped in Hawaii under their new commander, Lt. Cmdr. Edward “Butch” O’Hare, who had just become the Navy’s first fighter ace. VF-3 was effectively a training/refresher squadron while ashore, and Feightner learned much about how to fly in combat from O’Hare and the other veterans.

During this time, O’Hare noticed that, as the rest of the squadron developed deep tans in the Hawaiian sun, Feightner never tanned but only burned, leaving him as white as before once he recovered. As a result, O’Hare nicknamed him “Whitey.”

F4F-3 Wildcat from VF-6 launches from unidentified carrier in the Pacific, circa 1942. National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution

Feightner was reassigned to VF-10, the “Grim Reapers,” aboard USS Enterprise (CV-6) when the carrier came through Hawaii. His first combat experience was the Battle of Santa Cruz (October 25-27, 1942) in which the two remaining Japanese fleet carriers (Shokaku and Zuikaku) sought to finish off the two remaining American carriers, Enterprise and USS Hornet (CV-8). Feightner shot down a Japanese dive bomber on his first combat mission, then, low on fuel, had to land aboard Enterprise after it had taken damage from two bomb hits and a near-miss. VF-10 operated from Guadalcanal for a time (while Enterprise left for repairs). Feightner claimed to have shot down nine aircraft while stationed there, but the records never made it into his official tally.

In May 1943 he returned to the U.S. and began transitioning to the Grumman F6F Hellcat with VF-8. In March 1944, Carrier Air Group 8 (to which VF-8 belonged) transferred to USS Bunker Hill (CV-17), part of the Fast Carrier Task Force (whose designation was alternately TF-38 or TF-58 depending on whether 3rd Fleet or 5th Fleet was in command). Feightner finally got credit for shooting down his fifth airplane on March 30, 1944, making him an ace. His official tally reached nine before the Bunker Hill rotated back to the U.S. for overhaul in November 1944. Subsequent assignments kept him out of combat in Korea and Vietnam, so he never had a chance to increase his victory total.

Feightner in the cockpit of his F6F Hellcat showing his nine confirmed victories. U.S. Navy

Test Pilot

On his return to the States, the Navy assigned Feightner as an instructor pilot in Fighter Training, a role he held through the end of the war. After the war, he spent several years in staff jobs before being assigned to the second class at the Naval Test Pilot School. Following his graduation in 1949, Feightner became a member of the Navy’s Flight Test Division. From then until 1953, he flew all manner of Navy aircraft, not just fighters — he learned to fly (and tested) many of the Navy’s helicopters, seaplanes like the Martin P5M Mariner, and even the largest airplane the Navy has ever operated: Lockheed’s massive double-decker R6V Constitution.

As a test pilot, Feightner was also in on the ground floor for the new jet airplanes being developed. He was the Navy’s project pilot for Vought’s radical-looking F7U Cutlass. In the late summer of 1951, he performed carrier suitability tests with the F7U-1. The -1 was severely underpowered, and the tailless design required an extreme nose-up attitude when landing that made it difficult to see the carrier. Feightner’s tests demonstrated the -1 was definitely not safe for carrier operations: he was the only pilot ever to fly one on or off a carrier. The improved F7U-3 eventually served in the Fleet, but the “Gutless Cutlass” retained a reputation as a dangerous airplane to fly.

The Vought F7U-1 Cutlass Feightner flew for the carrier tests. San Diego Air & Space Museum

Flying with the Blue Angels

In January 1952, the Navy wanted the F7U to start flying with the Blue Angels (despite its problems) and ordered Feightner to join the flight demonstration team. In addition to the underpowered and unreliable engines, the Cutlass also had a new hydraulic system. This came with its own problems, and made the Cutlass unsuited to close formation flying. The Blue Angels’ solution was to have two Cutlasses fly independently of the four Grumman F9F Panthers the team was already flying. This introduced the two “solo” aircraft that continue to be part of Blue Angels performances today.

On one flight to an air show in Chicago, both he and his wingman suffered engine losses in their Cutlasses. Then, near their destination, the wingman had a fire in his second engine. While he landed safely, his plane blocked the only runway. Feightner ended up landing on a just-completed runway at a nearby civilian airport, becoming the first pilot to land at O’Hare, the airport named after the long-ago commanding officer who had christened him “Whitey.”

In September 1952, Feightner reported to Developmental Test Squadron 3 (VX-3) in New Jersey, where he flew even more of the Navy’s newest jets, developing tactics and operational doctrine for them, including flying simulated nuclear attack missions. Feightner was also the pilot for the first public demonstration of the Navy’s new steam catapult technology.

Rising to Senior Leadership

From VX-3, he went on to command his own squadron, command a carrier air group, and serve on the staff of another carrier air group before reporting to the Naval War College. When he graduated in 1961, he was assigned as the project officer for the McDonnell F4H Phantom II and then the Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX) project that became the General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark. In 1962 the Navy made him head of Navy Fighter Design, where he oversaw development of the Vought F8U Crusader, North American FJ-4 Fury, and the Grumman E-2 Hawkeye. The E-2 came out of the Fighter Design office because of its role in guiding fighters to incoming targets.

Feightner’s next responsibilities were at sea, including a year as captain of the USS Okinawa (LPH-3), a helicopter carrier. Following this, Feightner returned to shore, serving in aviation-related positions at the Pentagon, and then as director of the Naval Aviation Weapons Systems Analysis Group. He completed his Navy career leading different offices in Naval Air Systems Command. In these varying roles, he influenced development of Grumman’s F-14 Tomcat and EA-6B Prowler, Lockheed’s S-3 Viking, McDonnell Douglas’ F/A-18 Hornet, and numerous aerial weapons systems. By the time he retired in 1974 as a two-star admiral, Feightner had 8,610 flight hours in over 100 different Navy aircraft. Following his retirement, he co-founded a military consulting company, and continued flying, tallying a total of nearly 2,400 hours in civilian aircraft.

F-14A of VF-124 “Gunfighters” c. 1974. National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution

Feightner married Violet Volz in 1948, but they never had children. After she died in 2015, Feightner moved in with his nephew in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. His last flight was on his 97th birthday, flying a floatplane around Lake Coeur d’Alene. He died on April 1, 2020, leaving a legacy as a successful combat pilot and a man who helped shape several generations of U.S. Navy aircraft.

See “Whitey” Feightner talk about some of his early experiences flying in a video from May 24, 2011, when he delivered the Museum's annual Charles A. Lindbergh Memorial Lecture.