Two legendary pilots die

March 25, 2010

Elinor Smith Sullivan, portrayed in the movie Amelia, died March 19 in Palo Alto, Calif. She was 98. Sullivan was the youngest pilot in the United States at age 16 and set numerous endurance and altitude records.

She got her first recognition at age 17 for flying under all four of New York City’s East River suspension bridges on a dare. Her most treasured accomplishment came when fellow pilots named her the “Best Woman Pilot in America.” The male winner was Jimmy Doolittle.

The movie portrays her meeting her idol, Amelia Earhart, in a hotel room prior to a race. The plot then shows her undermined during the race by Earhart’s manager and husband, George Putnam, so that Earhart could win.

In an interview with the Washington Post, son Patrick H. Sullivan indicated that she might not have idolized Earhart in real life. She was offered money by Putnam to make a record-breaking flight and crouch down in the cockpit after landing to let Earhart have the credit, he told the Post. Other female pilots felt Earhart’s fame was puffery and resented it, Sullivan told the newspaper.

She told a documentary filmmaker that Earhart lacked proper flight instruction and a willingness to practice her pilot skills, but could have been a “natural,” the Post reported. At 88, she became the oldest pilot to land the NASA Space Shuttle simulator.

X-15 pilot dies

Maj. Gen. Robert M. White died in Orlando, Fla., at age 85. He became the first to take the X-15 to 4,093 mph (six times the speed of sound) and 59.6 miles above the Earth—10 miles above the atmosphere. He also was the first to fly the rocket plane at four and five times the speed of sound.

Officially, the U.S. Air Force termed him a “command pilot astronaut.” He received the first “winged astronaut” designation awarded by the Air Force to a pilot.

His work contributed vital research for the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and space shuttle missions.

White was a fighter pilot in World War II with 50 missions before he was shot down over Germany and taken prisoner in February 1945, a year after earning his pilot wings. He was recalled to duty during the Korean War. He was a fighter pilot and flight commander based near Tokyo in 1952. He served as a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War and completed 70 missions over North Vietnam.

His military decorations and awards include the Air Force Cross (for leading an attack against an important rail and highway bridge near Hanoi), Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star with three oak leaf clusters, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross with four oak leaf clusters, Bronze Star Medal, Air Medal with 16 oak leaf clusters, and the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award Ribbon with "V" device. For his achievements in the X-15 aircraft, White received the Harmon International Aviators Trophy, the Collier Trophy, and NASA's Distinguished Service Medal.

Al Marsh

Alton K. Marsh | "AOPA Pilot" Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.