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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Along with the P-38, the U-2, and the SR-71, Tony LeVier was one of Lockheed’s most prized legends. LeVier cut his teeth on air racing and placed second in the 1939 Thompson Trophy Race. The next year he was hired as a test pilot by General Motors; then he moved to Lockheed.

LeVier flight-tested the P-38 Lightning to the ragged edges of its envelope and was sent to England to teach Eighth Air Force pilots how to get the most out of it. On one harrowing flight, in a 60-degree dive at over 500 mph initiated at 35,000 feet, the airplane started to nose over; LeVier hauled back on the stick, trying to maintain dive angle. What saved him were dive-recovery flaps that engineers had just installed to prevent this very problem. At 13,000 feet, LeVier slowly regained control. “My strain gauges were set for 100 percent of limit load,” he reported in Test Pilots by Richard Hallion, “and they were all over 100 and all the red warning lights were on when I finally got out of the dive.”

Next up: the XP-80A, the nation’s first operational jet fighter. In 1945, by which time he was Lockheed’s chief test pilot, an XP-80’s turbine disintegrated and took the tail off the airplane. LeVier bailed out and crushed two vertebrae upon landing, an injury that grounded him for six months. He later called it “the most horrifying experience of my whole flying career.”

After World War II ended, LeVier worked with the model 75 Saturn and XR60-1 Constitution transports, and on the side bought a P-38 and got back into air racing. In 1946 he again placed second in the Thompson race. LeVier was the first to fly the XF-90, the YF-94 Starfire, the XF-104 Starfighter, and the U-2. (In Kelly: More Than My Share of It All, Lockheed designer Kelly Johnson recounts that when LeVier first saw the F-104, he asked, “Where are the wings?”—a question a great many others at least wondered about.) In 1950 he piloted the first Lockheed aircraft to surpass Mach 1, an F-90, which he dove at an angle of 60 degrees to reach 900 mph. When LeVier retired in 1974, he had made the first flights of 20 aircraft, had flown some 240 types of aircraft, and had survived eight crashes and a mid-air collision.

9. Jean Mermoz

In January 1921, on his third try, Jean Mermoz got his pilot’s license. Three years later, he signed up as a pilot with Lignes Aeriennes Latécoère, and set out to attain the goal of aircraft designer Pierre Latécoère: to create an airmail line linking Europe with Africa and South America.

In 1926, Mermoz had engine trouble over the Mauritanian desert and made an emergency landing. He was captured by nomadic Moors and held prisoner until a ransom was paid—a common practice and one of the many torments on the Latécoère airmail routes, which linked Toulouse to Barcelona, Casablanca, and Dakar. Mermoz was lucky—five Latécoère pilots were killed by Moors. Other hazards: the hostile Sahara, impenetrable Andes, and 150-mph winds that roiled over the southern Argentine coast.

In 1927, Lignes Aeriennes Latécoère became Compagnie Général Aéropostale, and Mermoz took charge of the South American routes. He made Aéropostale’s first South American night flight in April 1928 from Natal in Brazil to Buenos Aires in Argentina, along a route unmarked by any sort of beacon. After he showed the way, mail delivery was no longer restricted to daylight-only operations.

Mermoz next tackled shortening the Argentina-to-Chile route; pilots had to make a thousand-mile detour to get around the Andes. With mechanic Alexandre Collenot, Mermoz set out in a Latécoère 25 monoplane and found an updraft that carried them through a mountain pass, but a downdraft smashed the aircraft onto a plateau at 12,000 feet. After determining that they could not hike out, Mermoz cleared a crude path to the edge of the precipice and removed from the aircraft anything that wasn’t bolted down. He and Collenot strapped themselves in, and Mermoz got the airplane rolling down the path. In effect, they dove off the mountain, and Mermoz pointed the nose straight down, hoping to gain flying speed. Again, luck was with him. And in July 1929, with the acquisition of Potez 25 open-cockpit biplanes that had a much higher ceiling than the Laté 25, Mermoz and Henry Guillaumet opened a scheduled route between Buenos Aires and Santiago.

In early 1930, Aéropostale looked to bridge the Atlantic. Mermoz, in a new Latécoère 28 float-equipped monoplane, took off on May 12 from St. Louis, Senegal, with a navigator, a radio operator, and a load of mail. As night fell, they flew into a series of waterspouts that rose into stormy clouds. In Wind, Sand and Stars, published in 1940, fellow Aéropostale pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote: “Through these uninhabited ruins Mermoz made his way, gliding slantwise from one channel of light to the next, flying for four hours through these corridors of moonlight. And this spectacle was so overwhelming that only after he had got through the Black Hole did Mermoz awaken to the fact that he had not been afraid….”


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