You Gotta Know These Aviators
- Wright Brothers (Orville: 1871–1948; Wilbur: 1867–1912) The Wright Brothers operated a bicycle repair shop in Dayton, Ohio before creating the first successful, powered, heavier-than-air, manned airplane. For several years, utilizing both a wind tunnel they built as well as test flights, they created and refined gliders before adding an engine to their design. Finally, on December 17, 1903, with Orville at the controls, the Flyer I made a 12-second flight at Kill Devil Hills near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They made several more launches that day, with Wilbur staying aloft for 59 seconds on the fourth, and last, flight.
- Charles Lindbergh (1902–1974) In May 1927, Lindbergh made the first non-stop, solo, trans-Atlantic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis, a single-engine Ryan aircraft. Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island and landed at Le Bourget Field in Paris 33½ hours later. Lindbergh married Anne Morrow in 1929, and the 1932 kidnapping and murder of their son Charles Jr. was called “The Crime of the Century”; ultimately, Bruno Hauptmann was convicted and executed. Prior to the U.S.’s entry into World War II, Lindbergh urged the U.S. to remain neutral and was active with the America First Committee, though during the war he flew 50 combat missions in the Pacific.
- Amelia Earhart (1897–1937?) More than 70 years after her disappearance, Earhart remains the most famous female aviator. In 1932 she became the first woman to make a trans-Atlantic solo flight, and three years later she became the first pilot of any gender to fly solo from Hawaii to California. In June 1937, she and navigator Fred Noonan embarked on a 29,000-mile, around-the-world flight in a twin-engine Lockheed Electra. They completed most of the journey, but became lost and eventually disappeared on the leg between Lae, New Guinea, and Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean. Speculation as to their ultimate fate continues to this day.
- Chuck Yeager (1923–present) During World War II, Yeager served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, earning “ace in a day” status by shooting down five German aircraft in one mission. On October 14, 1947, Yeager — piloting a Bell X-1 plane nicknamed (in tribute to his wife) Glamorous Glennis — became the first pilot to exceed the speed of sound in level flight. Profiled in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, Yeager re-set the speed record at more than Mach 2 in 1953, and he remained active in the Air Force, even flying combat missions over Vietnam in his mid-40s.
- Howard Hughes (1905–1976) Subject of the 2004 film The Aviator, Hughes was a skilled aircraft pilot and designer who in the 1930s set speed records for flights across the United States and around the world. His most famous plane was the H-4 Hercules, or “Spruce Goose,” a massive wooden plane that to this day holds the record for longest wingspan on an operational craft. Meant to carry as many as 750 troops, Hughes himself was the pilot during its lone flight, a one-minute hop in 1947. Also a movie producer, Hughes is widely remembered for the various eccentricities, such as a pathological fear of germs and a refusal to cut his hair or nails, that he exhibited late in life.
- Wiley Post (1898–1935) In 1931, Post and navigator Harold Gatty completed a circumnavigation of the globe aboard the Winnie Mae, an experience that the two wrote about in Around the World in Eight Days. Two years later, Post became the first solo pilot to complete an around-the-world trip. He then began investigating the possibility of high-altitude flight and, using a pressurized suit of his own design, reached a height of 50,000 feet and may have been the first to encounter and use the jet stream. Today, Post is mainly remembered for the circumstances of his death; while flying through Alaska with world-famous humorist Will Rogers as his passenger, Post crashed near Point Barrow, Alaska, and both men died.
- Jimmy Doolittle (1896–1993) James H. Doolittle served as a flight instructor for the U.S. Army during World War I, and after the war became a celebrated race pilot, reaching a world-record speed of 296 miles per hour in 1932. Rejoining the military after Pearl Harbor, he personally led the “Doolittle Raid,” in which 16 B-25 bombers took off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet and bombed the Japanese home islands in April 1942. Following the raid, Doolittle commanded the Eighth Air Force that launched massive bombing raids against Germany.
- Manfred von Richthofen (1892–1918) Better known as the “Red Baron,” Richthofen was credited with shooting down 80 enemy aircraft, making him the top overall ace of World War I. Richthofen’s personal command, Jagdgeschwader 1, became known as “Richthofen’s Flying Circus” due to the variety of colors used on its planes. Richthofen died on April 21, 1918, when he was shot aboard his red Fokker triplane; though the Royal Air Force credited Canadian ace Roy Brown with the kill, it is more likely that he was brought down by ground fire from Australian troops in the trenches.
- Eddie Rickenbacker (1890–1973) Before becoming a pilot, Rickenbacker achieved fame as a race car driver; “Fast Eddie” competed in the Indianapolis 500 on four separate occasions. During World War I, he joined the U.S. Army as a driver, but was admitted to flight school with the help of Colonel Billy Mitchell, and went on to win the Medal of Honor and finish as the top American ace of the war, with 26 kills. Rickenbacker bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1927 and Eastern Airlines in 1938. While on a military mission in the Pacific in 1942, Rickenbacker’s plane crashed, but he and all but one crewman survived a brutal 24-day ordeal aboard small life rafts.
- Burt Rutan (1943–present) A legendary aircraft designer, Rutan gained worldwide attention in 1986 when his Voyager plane, piloted by his brother Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager (no relation to Chuck Yeager), completed a non-stop, around-the-world flight without refueling. More recently, Rutan designed the Global Flyer, aboard which Steve Fossett made a solo, non-stop circumnavigation without refueling in 2005, and SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 won the $10 million Ansari X Prize by making the first privately funded space flights.
Other notable aviators include the inventor of the helicopter, Igor Sikorsky; Billy Mitchell, the “Father of the U.S. Air Force”; and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who wrote The Little Prince.
This article was contributed by former NAQT writer Raj Dhuwalia.