Proficient Pilot

World's greatest pilot

January 1, 2006

Barry Schiff recently flew his 300th aircraft type and hopes to live long enough to reach 400.

Some flying friends and I gathered recently for lunch at the Typhoon restaurant at the Santa Monica airport in California.

Conversation eventually turned from the menu toward a fascinating discussion about those who were the acknowledged leaders in their fields. There seemed to be consensus, for example, that Rembrandt was the greatest artist, Beethoven the most outstanding composer, Lance Armstrong the best cyclist ever, and so forth. The fur began to fly, though, when we attempted to determine who was or is the greatest pilot of all time.

Although entertaining, the lively discussion was inconclusive because it was difficult to define the criteria by which to measure a pilot's place in history. Most of us believed, however, that the world's greatest pilot had to have been more than a throttle jockey; he or she also had to have made a continuing and enduring contribution to aviation.

When I returned home, I sent a note to the 110 pilots on my personal e-mail list. Without specifying the criteria, I asked, "Who do you think was or is the greatest pilot of all time?" (Not surprisingly, a few of my friends nominated themselves.)

There were four top vote-getters. Fourth place went to Orville and Wilbur but not simply for their first flight. They are admired for having had to discover and formulate the aerodynamics needed to control a heavier-than-air machine of their own making. They had to teach themselves to fly a primitive craft that even today is regarded as virtually unflyable.

Third place went to Bob Hoover, whose stick-and-rudder skills are legendary. He ranks high as one who continues to give of himself to aviation even after being unmercifully deprived of his most recent career as an airshow pilot by a dogmatic and determined bureaucracy. In the words of Matthew McDaniel, a Milwaukee flight instructor, "I can't think of anyone who better combines humility and class [aspects that should be considered] with noteworthy accomplishments and exploits during more than 60 years of military and civil aviating."

James "Jimmy" Doolittle took second place but not just because of his successful exploits in racing and record breaking. He was first to perform an outside loop and first to fly coast to coast in less than a day, but Doolittle also was first to take off, circle an airport, and land while under a hood the entire time. His role in the development of instrument flying may be without equal. He also was responsible for the 1942 attack on mainland Japan using carrier-based North American B-25 Mitchell bombers. He commanded the American aviation forces that invaded North Africa and later commanded the 8th Air Force.

The winner, not surprisingly, was Charles Lindbergh, but not just for his flight to Paris. He received accolades for his courage and determination, his devotion to furthering and improving civil and military aviation, and "for all that he accomplished and all that he endured." I sense that he would have received more votes were it not for what some regard as his controversial political views.

There were other remarkable pilots mentioned: William "Billy" Mitchell for his foresight and the price he paid for it; Bernt Balchen for being first to fly over both poles and for his exploratory Arctic flying before and during World War II; Charles "Chuck" Yeager, a durable and audacious hero, for his supersonic flight in the Bell X-1 Glamorous Glennis; Sir Charles Kingsford Smith for his long-distance flights, not the least of which was his 1928 trans-Pacific trek from California to Australia in the Southern Cross, a three-engine Fokker; and Scott Crossfield, the consummate technician, for his flights in the North American X-15 rocket plane.

Mentioned also were Roscoe Turner and Lincoln Beachey, exhibition pilots who inspired generations of pilots. They could do anything of which their airplanes were capable and some things of which they were not.

Three women pilots were given the nod: Jacqueline Cochran, Hanna Reitsch, and Louise Thaden. Amelia Earhart was notable because of her absence.

I particularly enjoyed my friend Stephen Ketyer's reply. He gave his vote to "an entire class of pilots, those who fly experimental aircraft for the first time and demonstrate the technology. But I also think we should be mindful that the pilot merely 'borrows' the aircraft that he flies to glory [from those who design and develop it]."

Others believe that the title of best pilot could belong to someone who performed with the greatest skill and composure during a single event. Such as Neil Armstrong who maneuvered the lunar lander to the moon's surface with only seconds of fuel to spare. Or United Airlines' Capt. Al Haynes who flew a crippled DC-10 to a "landing" at Sioux City, Iowa, in a way that not one of 57 crews could duplicate in a simulator.

If the world's greatest pilot can be someone whose performance is tested and measured during a unique and single event, perhaps he or she has yet to be determined. Most of us have yet to face the conditions or situation needed to prove ourselves in such a heroic manner. Personally, I pray that I never do.


Who do you think is the "world's greatest pilot"? Participate in our online survey ( www.aopa.org/members/survey/full_survey.cfm?id=140).


Visit the author's Web site ( www.barryschiff.com ).