Pilots: Bill Anders

July 1, 2009

“I’m not one of those kids who built models and dreamed of being a pilot from day one,” Bill Anders says. But what he lacked in an early start, he more than made up for with a passion that would take him from fighter jets to logging nearly a week in space as one of the first to truly leave the Earth behind.

Growing up in Texas, Anders’ first experience in an airplane left him less than impressed. On the way to school one day his dad bought him a ride in a biplane they saw flying out of a pasture. “The guy did a loop and I thought it was pretty low,” he recalls. On the way home from school, he saw the airplane had “dug a big hole in the ground” in the same pasture. Both pilot and passenger had been killed.

Years later as a cadet in the U.S. Naval Academy, Anders went for a ride in a float-equipped N3N. With the wrong wingtip float in the water on the taxi back, the young instructor hopped out to lean on the other wing and fell in the water. Anders said he was alone in the idling airplane with no idea how to shut it off. “I eventually started pulling all the switches and levers and it eventually stopped,” he says.

When Anders transferred to the U.S. Air Force out of the academy, he learned to fly and has been hooked ever since. “I couldn’t fly enough,” he says after being checked out in the F–89 Scorpion. “I was always volunteering for cross-country flights or test flights or delivering airplanes. I loved it.”

In 1963, Anders was selected as a NASA astronaut. He flew the T–38, and as an Apollo lunar module pilot he flew helicopters as well. In Apollo 8, Anders logged more than six days in space as part of the first crew to leave Earth orbit and fly around the moon. His famous Earth-rise photo is one of the most iconic images of all time. After his Apollo days he went on to several prominent jobs in Washington, D.C., but was careful not to let working in the capital take away from his flying. “I insisted that I keep my union card current,” he says, joking on how he was able to continue flying NASA T–38s.

Anders eventually ended up in the business world, and again found a way to keep flying. At Textron he flew Bell helicopters and as CEO of General Dynamics he appointed himself assistant test pilot on the F–16 night attack program. “The reason I picked night attack,” he explains, “is that in order to do a night mission, you have to do a day mission, so that was a ‘two-for.’”

Today, Anders is retired, but still flying about 300 hours a year. He flies several warbirds from a museum he founded in Washington state as well as a Columbia 400 he purchased several years ago. He says he enjoys simple VFR flying these days—a nice flight over the desert or formation flying with friends. And like most pilots he enjoys a good landing, something that reminds him of his key piece of advice from more than 50 years of flying—“Always have your gear down when you land.”