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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Wien’s flights broke other records as well. In 1927 he noted, “the last boat leaving in October didn’t mean isolation from the States until the first boat next June. For the first time ever, Nome got mail and fresh foods for Thanksgiving. Everybody looked forward to getting Christmas mail and foods, but they were disappointed—I was down on a lake in a blizzard Christmas Day.”

Wien flew everything and everybody to everywhere: bodies to burial sites, tourists to stunning views, gold dust from prospectors to market, sick folks to hospitals, trappers and dogs to hunting grounds. He lost an eye to infection in 1946, but he was able to hold on to his medical certificate and continued flying commercially until 1955. Wien stopped counting flight hours at 11,600.

3. Robert A. Hoover

After his Spitfire was shot down by a Focke-Wulf 190 over the Mediterranean in 1944, Hoover was captured and spent 16 months in the Stalag Luft 1 prison in Barth, Germany. He eventually escaped, appropriated an Fw 190 (which, of course, he had never piloted), and flew to safety in Holland. After the war Hoover signed up to serve as an Army Air Forces test pilot, flying captured German and Japanese aircraft. He became buddies with Chuck Yeager; Hoover was Yeager’s backup pilot in the Bell X-1 program, and he flew chase in a Lockheed P-80 when Yeager first exceeded Mach 1.

Hoover moved on to North American Aviation, where he testflew the T-28 Trojan, FJ-2 Fury, AJ-1 Savage, F-86 Sabre, and F-100 Super Sabre, and in the mid-1950s he began flying North American aircraft, both civil and military, at airshows. Jimmy Doolittle called Hoover “the greatest stick-and-rudder man who ever lived.”

Hoover is best known for the “energy management” routine he flew in a Shrike Commander, a twin-engine business aircraft. This fluid demonstration ends with Hoover shutting down both engines and executing a loop and an eight-point hesitation slow roll as he heads back to the runway. He touches down on one tire, then the other, and coasts precisely to the runway center.

Despite the numerous awards accorded him, Hoover remains humble enough to laugh at himself. He notes in his autobiography, Forever Flying, that in the 1950s, after showing off his Bugatti racer to the neighborhood kids, he asked, “Well, what do you think?” One youngster’s reply: “I think you’ve got the biggest nose I’ve ever seen.”

4. Charles A. Lindbergh

The young man who would give aviation its biggest boost since the Wright brothers got his start in aviation as a wingwalker, barnstormer, and parachutist. His proficiency in the latter art paid off when he had to bail out of a trainer during his Army stint and another three times while flying the Chicago-St. Louis mail run for the Robertson Air Corporation.

Any collection of photos of Lindbergh can easily be divided into pre-Atlantic crossing and post. There are many broad smiles before he flew solo nonstop from New York to Paris in May 1927; not many thereafter. Lindbergh was assaulted by the media and besieged by the adulation of the entire United States. By 1929, when Lindbergh was surveying cross-country routes for Transcontinental Air Transport and posing with movie stars to publicize the airline, the smile had vanished.


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