From Pilot to President
Do aviators make better leaders?
- By Barrett Tillman
- Air & Space magazine, August 2009
George Bush Presidential Library and Museum
(Page 2 of 4)
Hussein remained an avid flyboy until his death in 1999. His son, Abdullah, who took over the throne, is also a pilot.
Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak graduated from the country’s military academy at age 20 in 1949. He entered the air academy and took the standard curriculum of flying, along with scientific and technical studies. With a bachelor’s degree in aviation science, he flew fighters, then bombers.
Egypt got much of its operational training from the Soviet Union, where Mubarak qualified on Il-28s (NATO name: Beagles) and later Tu-16 Badgers. He became an instructor and unit commander, and in 1964 headed a military delegation to Moscow. At home he earned a reputation as a crack operations officer and planner.
After the 1967 war with Israel, Mubarak rebuilt the air force with an emphasis on training. As air force commander he waged the far more successful October 1973 war with Israel. Under his watch, in 1979 the Egyptian air force received its first F-4 Phantoms. Today the EAF inventory is about 30 percent American, including F-4s, F-16s, C-130s, E-2 Hawkeyes, and Apache helicopters.
After Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, Mubarak became president, declaring an open-ended state of emergency that continues.
Israeli Ezer Weizman entered the British Army during World War II and flew in France and India. He studied aeronautics in Britain and returned home to fly in Israel’s 1948 war of independence. He also flew in a 1949 skirmish pitting Israeli Spitfires against RAF counterparts. Weizman commanded one of Israel’s first jet squadrons, then rose to lead the air force from 1958 to 1966. His role in planning the spectacular 1967 war against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria cemented his pilot credentials.
Weizman was far from politically correct, and once told a woman who wished to enter flight training that females were better off darning socks. She appealed to Israel’s high court and received permission to take the air force’s pilot entrance examination, but failed her medical tests.
Elected president in 1993, Weizman resigned in 2000 amid charges of unreported income. His peace efforts with the Palestinian Authority did not help his case among hardliners in his conservative Likud party. But he remained a pilot’s pilot, and flew his shiny black Spitfire after most of his fellow jockeys had retired. Weizman died at age 80 in 2005.
South Vietnam’s Nguyen Cao Ky trained to be a pilot in France and North Africa in the 1950s, attended the U.S. Air Command and Staff College, and, in 1964 became head of Saigon’s air force at age 34. Often sporting a lavender scarf and aviator sunglasses, as well as a pearl-handled revolver on his hip and a cigarette in his mouth, he flew Douglas A-1 Skyraiders. His young wife attracted equal attention in a form-fitting black flightsuit that matched his.
In 1963, Ky supported the Kennedy administration’s coup that overthrew Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem and was rewarded with promotion to air marshal. He was later appointed prime minister and remained head of the air force through 1967. In 1975, he moved to the United States, settled in Los Angeles with his glamorous third wife, and opened a liquor store, prompting wags to opine that he had realized the dream of aviators everywhere.
Certainly the most junior airman to lead his country was Flight Lieutenant (the equivalent of U.S. Air Force first lieutenant) Jeremiah “Jerry” Rawlings of Ghana, whose titles include “Twice Head of State” and “First President of the Fourth Republic.” In 1967, he enlisted as a flight cadet in Ghana’s air force, and was later selected for officer training. An accomplished airman, Rawlings received the Speed Bird Trophy in 1969 for top flying grades in his class.
Rawlings was no less accomplished on the ground. In 1979, concerned about systemic corruption, he overthrew his government for the first time at age 32. During the first coup, Rawlings was most often seen wearing a flightsuit and air force hat, though by then the extent of his flying experience remains questionable. Ghana’s air force seldom numbered more than 30 aircraft at any time, none of which was combat-capable.