From Pilot to President
Do aviators make better leaders?
- By Barrett Tillman
- Air & Space magazine, August 2009
George Bush Presidential Library and Museum
These pilots flew high in the cockpit, and then in politics. Some reached their positions of leadership through the democratic process, others got there through royal birth, and some, of course, simply seized power. A few crashed and burned in both jobs.
Few countries have produced as many flying commanders-in-chief as the United States. The first to earn a pilot’s license was Dwight Eisenhower, who soloed in 1937, when he was a lieutenant colonel serving in the Philippines. But he never qualified for Army wings.
When it came to the right stuff, which of these leaders—and the list is by no means complete—were legit as aviators? Here are their qualifications:
It is George H.W. Bush, president from 1988 to 1992 and one of the youngest naval aviators of World War II, who has the most impressive record of America’s pilot-presidents. Not quite 19 upon receiving his wings, he flew TBM Avenger torpedo bombers from the carrier USS San Jacinto in 1944. It was said that Bush was “one of Grumman’s best customers,” having ditched one Avenger with engine trouble and parachuted from another. On a mission over the Bonin Islands, Japanese flak set Bush’s Avenger afire. He remained airborne long enough to reach open water. Though his two crewmen perished after bailing out with Bush, the future president was rescued by submarine. After the war, told that the Japanese army routinely cannibalized captured fliers, Bush quipped that he was so thin he would have made a poor meal. For his 58 combat missions, Lieutenant Junior Grade Bush was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals.
Addendum: His son George W. Bush, president from 2000 to 2008, briefly flew Convair F-102 interceptors while serving in the Texas Air National Guard from 1968 to 1974, but didn’t see combat.
Britain’s royal family’s got air cred. Though George V, king from 1910 to 1936, was photographed in Royal Air Force uniform with only honorary wings, three of his heirs earned pilot ratings. His second son, Prince Albert, saw combat in the Royal Navy, then entered the fledgling RAF in 1918 as a non-flying officer. Shortly after World War I, he trained to fly. Albert’s older brother Edward and younger brother George also became skillful pilots.
Edward inherited the throne in 1936 and established the King’s Flight at Hendon, where he became Britain’s first reigning monarch to fly as passenger and pilot. When Edward abdicated to marry an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, Albert succeeded with the name George VI. Baby brother George died in the 1942 crash of a Sunderland flying boat.
More recently, Prince Charles earned his wings in 1971, then qualified in helicopters in 1974. His son, Prince William, has flown in the RAF and the British army, primarily as a pilot on search-and-rescue choppers. Charles’ brother Andrew flew Sea King helicopters from HMS Invincible in the 1982 Falklands War, and continued flying until 1996.
Ian Smith, prime minister of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) from 1965 to 1979, was based in Egypt in October 1943 when he crashed on takeoff in his Hawker Hurricane. He broke facial bones, a leg, and a shoulder, and bowed his spine.
After reconstructive surgery, Smith was recertified and, owing to damage to his left eye, offered an instructor’s post. He declined, preferring combat, and flew Spitfires with No. 237 Squadron out of Corsica. In July 1944, strafing German forces in Italy’s Po River Valley, Smith was hit by flak and bailed out. He spent five months with the underground, helping coordinate Allied air operations, before embarking on a 23-day trek over the Alps to safety. He died in 2007 at age 88.
King Hussein bin Talal of Jordan formally ascended the throne in 1953 at age 17. He learned to fly his grandfather’s De Havilland Dove, and reportedly escaped two Syrian MiGs with low-level evasive maneuvers over Syria in 1958, just before his 23rd birthday. Hussein relied upon Britain’s RAF for early training, and with his guidance, the Royal Jordanian Air Force improved. But it lacked the skill of Israel’s air force, which decimated the RJAF on the ground in the 1967 Six Day War.
When making state visits, Hussein often took the controls of his Boeing 707, though with a full crew aboard. And he established a flight demonstration team with Americans Dave Rahm and Steve Wolf, which later became all-Jordanian. Flying Pitts Specials, the duo appeared in 1976, but Rahm was killed the next year in a performance in Jordan with Hussein in attendance. Hussein pressed ahead, and the Royal Jordanian Falcons debuted in 1978, sponsored by Jordan’s national airline.