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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Lindbergh made his greatest survey flight in 1931 for Pan Am, when he and his wife and radio operator/navigator Anne Morrow set out in a Lockheed Sirius on floats to establish the shortest air route from New York to China via Churchill in Canada, Nome, Petropavlosk, Tokyo, and Nanking. Two years later the pair scoped out north and south Atlantic cities for operational facilities on Pan Am’s transatlantic routes. This round-the-Atlantic flight in the Sirius encompassed landings in Greenland, Iceland, Sweden, Russia, Denmark, Scotland, Portugal, the Canary Islands, Brazil, and Puerto Rico.

In 1944, Lindbergh tested the Vought F4U Corsair in the field—the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific—and flew several missions with the U.S. Marines, downing a Japanese Zero. In New Guinea, he demonstrated to Army Air Forces pilots a fuel-saving technique that extended the range of the Lockheed P-38 from 575 to 750 miles. Charles Lindbergh’s flight to Paris was just the beginning of his career.

His daughter Reeve revealed Lindbergh’s method and his mastery when she recalled flying with him in an Aeronca Champion whose engine had quit: “He was persuading and willing and coaxing that airplane into doing what he wanted it to do, leaning it like a bobsled right down where it could safely land. He could feel its every movement as though it were his own body. My father wasn’t flying the airplane, he was being the airplane. That’s how he always done it.”

5. Charles E. Yeager

As a young Army Air Forces pilot in training, Yeager had to overcome airsickness before he went on to down 12 German fighters, including a Messerschmitt 262, the first jet fighter. After the war, still in the AAF, he trained as a test pilot at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, where he got to fly the United States’ first jet fighter, the Bell P-59, which he took on a joyride, flying low over the main street of his West Virginia hometown.

Yeager then went to Muroc Field in California, where Larry Bell introduced him and fellow test pilot Bob Hoover to the Bell XS-1. In his autobiography, Yeager, he says that Bell, in assuring them that a deadstick landing would be a piece of cake, bragged that “[W]ithout fuel aboard, she handles like a bird.”

“A live bird or a dead one?” Hoover asked.

In Yeager’s hands, the bullet-shaped XS-1 performed as advertised, and on October 14, 1947, ignoring the pain of two cracked ribs, he reached Mach 1.07 and lived to tell about it. The X-1 was not designed to take off under its own power; it was air-dropped from a mothership. In January 1949, Yeager fired up the X-1’s four rockets on the runway. “There was no ride ever in the world like that one!” he later wrote. The aircraft accelerated so rapidly that when the landing gear was retracted, an actuating rod snapped and the wing flaps blew off.

He also managed to fly the Douglas X-3, Northrop X-4, and Bell X-5, as well as the prototype for the Boeing B-47 swept-wing jet bomber. The Bell X-1A nearly ate him for breakfast one December day in 1953. Yeager thought he could coax the X-1A to Mach 2.3 and bust Scott Crossfield’s Mach 2 record, achieved in the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket. At 80,000 feet and Mach 2.4, the nose yawed, a wing rose, and the X-1A went berserk “in what pilots call going divergent in all three axes,” Yeager wrote. “I called it hell.” He was able to recover at 25,000 feet.

Yeager was sent to Okinawa in 1954 to test a Soviet MiG-15 that a North Korean had used to defect. When he stopped test-flying that year, he had logged 10,000 hours in 180 types of military aircraft.


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