10 All-Time Great Pilots

Machines alone could not have pushed the airplane forward

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


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