From Pilot to President

Do aviators make better leaders?

Young man on a mission: A baby-faced George H.W. Bush (above), shown in 1943-44, flew the Grumman TBM Avenger in the Pacific. Half a lifetime later, he would land in the Oval Office. (George Bush Presidential Library and Museum)
Air & Space Magazine

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After the 1967 war with Israel, Mubarak rebuilt the air force with an emphasis on training. As air force commander he waged the far more successful October 1973 war with Israel. Under his watch, in 1979 the Egyptian air force received its first F-4 Phantoms. Today the EAF inventory is about 30 percent American, including F-4s, F-16s, C-130s, E-2 Hawkeyes, and Apache helicopters.

After Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, Mubarak became president, declaring an open-ended state of emergency that continues.

Israeli Ezer Weizman entered the British Army during World War II and flew in France and India. He studied aeronautics in Britain and returned home to fly in Israel’s 1948 war of independence. He also flew in a 1949 skirmish pitting Israeli Spitfires against RAF counterparts. Weizman commanded one of Israel’s first jet squadrons, then rose to lead the air force from 1958 to 1966. His role in planning the spectacular 1967 war against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria cemented his pilot credentials.

Weizman was far from politically correct, and once told a woman who wished to enter flight training that females were better off darning socks. She appealed to Israel’s high court and received permission to take the air force’s pilot entrance examination, but failed her medical tests.

Elected president in 1993, Weizman resigned in 2000 amid charges of unreported income. His peace efforts with the Palestinian Authority did not help his case among hardliners in his conservative Likud party. But he remained a pilot’s pilot, and flew his shiny black Spitfire after most of his fellow jockeys had retired. Weizman died at age 80 in 2005.

South Vietnam’s Nguyen Cao Ky trained to be a pilot in France and North Africa in the 1950s, attended the U.S. Air Command and Staff College, and, in 1964 became head of Saigon’s air force at age 34. Often sporting a lavender scarf and aviator sunglasses, as well as a pearl-handled revolver on his hip and a cigarette in his mouth, he flew Douglas A-1 Skyraiders. His young wife attracted equal attention in a form-fitting black flightsuit that matched his.

In 1963, Ky supported the Kennedy administration’s coup that overthrew Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem and was rewarded with promotion to air marshal. He was later appointed prime minister and remained head of the air force through 1967. In 1975, he moved to the United States, settled in Los Angeles with his glamorous third wife, and opened a liquor store, prompting wags to opine that he had realized the dream of aviators everywhere.
Certainly the most junior airman to lead his country was Flight Lieutenant (the equivalent of U.S. Air Force first lieutenant) Jeremiah “Jerry” Rawlings of Ghana, whose titles include “Twice Head of State” and “First President of the Fourth Republic.” In 1967, he enlisted as a flight cadet in Ghana’s air force, and was  later selected for officer training. An accomplished airman, Rawlings received the Speed Bird Trophy in 1969 for top flying grades in his class.

Rawlings was no less accomplished on the ground. In 1979, concerned about systemic corruption, he overthrew his government for the first time at age 32. During the first coup, Rawlings was most often seen wearing a flightsuit and air force hat, though by then the extent of his flying experience remains questionable. Ghana’s air force seldom numbered more than 30 aircraft at any time, none of which was combat-capable.

Rawlings toppled his successor in 1981, got himself elected in 1993, and finally left office due to term limits in 2001.

Bolivia’s René Barrientos Ortuño, a career military officer, learned to fly in 1945. He owned a Cessna 195 and enjoyed buzzing passenger trains in a military AT-6. In the 1940s, he gravitated toward the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement, and took part in the Bolivian revolution in 1952. He flew Victor Paz Estenssoro, the revolution’s leader who had been in exile in Argentina, back into the country, and as a result was given command of Bolivia’s air force.

In 1960, during a public air force parachute demonstration, three skydivers fell to their deaths before a horrified crowd. When Barrientos became the target of some of the accusations that followed, he strapped on one of the parachutes that had failed to open and jumped from an airplane. The chute performed properly. Barrientos claimed that his jump proved that nothing was fundamentally wrong with the parachute or his credibility.

He served almost continuously as president from 1964 to 1969, when he died in a helicopter crash.

Prince Felipe of Spain was voted by People magazine as the Sexiest Royal in 1997. After years as one of Europe’s most eligible bachelors, the 41-year-old heir to the Spanish throne is married and a dad to two daughters. But he’s flown the F/A-18 Hornet, and is helicopter-qualified in the army and the navy.

Now, if you were born into European royalty, and you asked for the keys to a supersonic fighter, your dad would probably hand them over. Furthermore, while Spanish women might swoon over his six-foot-five height, most air forces would pass on someone that tall, as a tight fit in a fighter cockpit. But Felipe seems legit—with the other Spanish air force cadets in his class, he happily shaved his hair in the shape of a T, a tradition on the day they get their wings.

There are plenty more presidents, prime ministers, monarchs, and dictators with wings. Which ones do you think have had the right stuff, and which ones are mainly stuffing? Send an e-mail to us at

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