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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6. Scott Crossfield

When Navy fighter pilot and flight instructor Scott Crossfield heard about the Bell Experimental Sonic XS-1 under construction in 1947, he wrote to its manufacturer proposing that he be named its first test pilot; he offered to fly it for free. Bell did not reply, but no matter: In 1950 Crossfield was hired by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and sent to Edwards Air Force Base in California to fly the world’s hottest X-planes, including the X-1, the tail-less Northrop X-4, the Douglas D-558-I Skystreak and D-558-II Skyrocket, the Convair XF-92A (which he pronounced “under-powered, under- geared, underbraked, and overweight”), and the Bell X-5. He made 100 rocket-plane flights in all. On November 20, 1953, he took the D-558-II to Mach 2.04, becoming the first pilot to fly at twice the speed of sound.

He gained a reputation as a pilot whose flights were jinxed: On his first X-4 flight, he lost both engines; in the Skyrocket, he flamed out; the windshield iced over in the X-1. After a deadstick landing in a North American F-100, he lost hydraulic pressure and the Super Sabre slammed into a hangar wall. Forever after, Chuck Yeager crowed, “The sonic wall was mine; the hangar wall was Crossfield’s.”

Despite the many thrills at Edwards in the Golden Age of X-Planes, Crossfield was seduced by an aircraft on the North American drawing board. In 1955, he quit the NACA and signed on with the manufacturer, where he found his calling with the sinister-looking X-15. Crossfield made the first eight flights of the X-15, learning its idiosyncrasies, and logged another six after NASA and Air Force pilots joined the program. On flight number 4, the fuselage buckled right behind the cockpit on landing, but he had his closest call on the ground, while testing the XLR-99 engine in June 1960. “I put the throttle in the stowed position and pressed the reset switch,” Crossfield wrote in his autobiography Always Another Dawn. “It was like pushing the plunger on a dynamite detonator. X-15 number three blew up with incredible force.” Fire engines rushed to extinguish the blaze, and Crossfield was extracted from the cockpit. “The only casualty was the crease in my trousers,” he told reporters. “The firemen got them wet when they sprayed the airplane with water.” You sure it was the firemen? a reporter asked. Yes, he was sure, he aid. “I pictured the headline: ‘Space Ship Explodes; Pilot Wets Pants.’ ”

7. Erich Hartmann

Unlike the rest of the pilots in “Ten Great,” Erich Hartmann flew only one aircraft type, and did almost all his flying during World War II. But his downing a mindboggling 352 enemy aircraft and earning the title of the Greatest Ace of All Time, No Kidding, places him on this list fair and square.

Hartmann’s mother taught him to fly gliders in his teens. He enlisted in the Luftwaffe in 1940, and his profiency at gunnery school marked him as a rising star. When he arrived on the Eastern Front at age 20, he was nicknamed Bubi (boy) by fellow pilots, and took to the Messerschmitt Me 109 like a duck to water. Hartmann’s winning technique was to fly so close to the enemy that he couldn’t miss. In November 1942 he scored his first victory, and within a year had downed 148 aircraft. The number of medals and awards seemed to keep pace with the number of fallen aircraft, which reached 301 in August 1944.

His superiors deemed him too valuable an asset to remain in combat (he was forced down 16 times) and called him back to test the Messerschmitt Me 262. But Hartmann was dedicated to fighting the Soviets and finagled a reassignment to the front. He was made a group commander and downed another 51 aircraft before Germany surrendered. In less than three years, he had flown 825 combat sorties.

Hartmann spent 10 years in a Russian prison. Three years after his release in 1955, he was commanding West Germany’s first all-jet fighter wing. He remained with the air force for another 15 years.

8. Anthony W. LeVier


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