10 Amazing Pilots You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Flying recognizes a handful of remarkable but lesser-known pilots.

There have been millions of pilots and a few hundred really great ones, those whose achievements pushed the boundaries of flight. Names like Neil Armstrong, Charles Lindbergh, Chuck Yeager, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Manfred von Richtofen, and Amelia Earhart are familiar to aviators and non-fliers alike. Others, like those featured here, are known to aviation history buffs and to almost no one else. Even for many of our readers, we suspect that most of these names and stories will be brand new. There’s no shortage of great stories of pilots too-little-known. Here are some remarkable ones.

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Noel Wien
Pioneering Alaska Bush Pilot Credited with being the pilot who brought airline service to Alaska, Wisconsin-born Noel Wien was the first aviator to make regular commercial flights between Fairbanks and Anchorage in the 1920s, the first to fly above the Arctic Circle and the first to make a round-trip journey between Alaska and Asia. Wien arrived in Alaska in his open cockpit Hisso Standard J1 biplane in 1924 as a barnstormer. Sensing an opportunity, three years later he founded Wien Air Alaska, the state’s first airline. He personally taught many of the airline’s pilots to fly, expanding service from single-engine Fairchild monoplanes to Ford Trimotors to DC-3s and eventually into jet airliners that landed on gravel runways. Wien died at age 76, and the airline he created continued for eight more years, until 1985, when it succumbed to financial difficulty. The routes and practices Wien pioneered are still used by Alaska pilots today. Alaska State Library
Erich Hartmann
The Deadliest Ace On the list of legendary World War II fighter aces there’s Erich Hartmann and then there’s everybody else. A German fighter pilot who flew a Messerschmitt Bf 109 on the Eastern Front between October 1942 and May 1945, Hartmann is credited with downing 352 Allied aircraft, without ever once being shot down himself. (The top-scoring American ace of the war, P-38 pilot Richard Bong, had 40 confirmed shoot downs.) Flying an incredible 1,404 combat missions, the vast majority of Hartmann’s victories (345) came against the Soviets. It’s no wonder, then, that after the war he spent nearly a decade in a Russian gulag, falsely accused of trumped up war crimes. Hartmann concedes that most of the Allied pilots he shot down never knew what hit them as he employed the tactic of “stalk and ambush,” firing his guns in short bursts at extremely close range against his outmatched Soviet adversaries.
Bryan Allen
Hardest Working Pilot Ever Think flying a regular airplane is hard work? Think again. Compared to the job Bryan Allen once held, it’s nothing. Allen, an amateur cyclist and engineer at the Jet Propulsion Labs by day, is the pilot who both flew and acted as the human powerplant for a few of Paul MacCready’s record-setting people-powered planes. The most famous of them was the Gossamer Albatross, in which Allen successfully skirted the wave tops on his way across the Channel from England to France. While supplying the motive pedal force for the Albatross, Allen hit unexpected headwinds and ran out of drinking water, consequently suffering severe cramping and dehydration. He powered through, however, completing the 26-mile journey in 2 hours and 49 minutes. For his hard work, Allen earned a place in the history books alongside the original channel crosser Louis Blériot and other aviation greats. NASA
Jacqueline Cochran
Better Than Chuck? In a time when pilots were in great need and men were in short supply, Jacqueline Cochran had a vision. She was running a successful beautician’s business, using an airplane to fly to some of her customers, when World War II broke out. While women were prohibited from participating in combat at the time, Cochran envisioned female pilots helping in the war effort by flying support missions. At first, Army Air Force General Henry “Hap” Arnold was against the idea, but after Cochran achieved several flying awards and titles, Arnold reconsidered her proposal. Together with fellow aviator Nancy Harkness Love, Cochran formed the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs), and they had no trouble finding women willing to fly. The WASPs flew all of the warbirds of World War II in various capacities, making a significant contribution to the war effort. After the war, Cochran continued her ambitious flying ventures, becoming the first woman to break the sound barrier in 1953. It has been said that she holds more speed and distance records than any other pilot, man or woman.
The Greatest Test Pilot Ever? Ninety-six-year-old Eric “Winkle” Brown last flew more than 20 years ago, yet he still holds the all-time record for the most aircraft flown in a lifetime. Just how many aircraft is that? A whopping 487. The former Royal Navy test pilot also holds the record for the most carrier landings ever made, accumulating 2,407 of them throughout his lifetime. The World War II hero, whose years of test flights helped refine countless aircraft, acquired a reputation for being cool under pressure and attributes his survival through many close calls to two things: his “meticulous preparation” and his short stature (hence the nickname “Winkle”). In addition to his incredible flying feats, he also helped liberate the Bergen Belsen concentration camp and gleaned vital information throughout the war by using his impeccable German language skills to interview captured Germans.
Test Pilot and Marketer On August 7, 1955, Boeing test pilot Tex Johnston performed two gorgeous barrel rolls of the Boeing 707 prototype, the world’s first jetliner, over Seattle’s Lake Washington to the delight of a crowd of Boeing customers and the dismay of company executives. After the stunt, then-Boeing president Bill Allen summoned Johnston to his office to ask what in the world he thought he was doing. “I was selling airplanes,” the test pilot famously replied. That immortalized tale tells you everything you need to know about the man and the pilot. Called “Tex” for his penchant for wearing cowboy boots and a Stetson hat on the flight line, Kansas-born Johnston was a legendary military test pilot, flying with Bob Hoover and Chuck Yeager on the Bell X-1 program and later for NASA on Apollo test missions. Well known among pilots for his outsized bravado, he somehow has managed to stay on the periphery of the general public’s consciousness. Boeing
Max Conrad
He Kept Going and Going and… A friend of one of the most famous pilots of all, Charles Lindberg, Max Conrad’s achievements as a pilot are equally as impressive. Born in 1903, Conrad accumulated more than 50,000 hours of flight time before his death in 1979, despite suffering brain damage after being hit by a propeller as a young man. He ran several successful flight schools, but after a fire destroyed a hangar with more than 30 of his airplanes inside it, he called it quits. Conrad set several distance and endurance records working as a ferry pilot of light airplanes. Some of those records still stand today, such as a nonstop flight from Casablanca, Morocco, to Los Angeles that took 58 hours 38 minutes. In 1961, Conrad flew around the world in a Piper Aztec — the first civilian airplane to land on the South Pole.
Tony LeVier
Skunk Works Test Pilot If not for Tony LeVier, one of the greatest warbirds of the Second World War — the P-38 Lightning — might not have become all that it did. The expert air racer and test pilot extraordinaire, who like so many early pilots was inspired to learn to fly after Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, resolved a number of key problems with the so-called “forked tail devil” during the plane’s development in 1942. LeVier would go on to become Lockheed’s Chief Test Pilot in 1945, and famed designer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson reportedly said he liked it when LeVier test flew his airplanes because he always “brought home the answers.” LeVier flew an impressive array of aircraft over his career, including the XF-90, the XF-104 Starfighter and the U-2, just to name a few. He also developed a number of vital aviation innovations, including the hot mic system for multiplace airplanes and the master caution warning light system.
Jean Mermoz
Connected the Continents Jean Mermoz has been called by some an average pilot, but when it came to his courage, there is little doubt he belongs among the most intrepid aviators in the history of flight. As a result of his daring, he became instrumental in carving out some of the first flying routes over the rough environment of the Andes in South America, and his 21-hour flight from Saint-Louis, Senegal, to Natal, Brazil, in 1930 led to the establishment of the first postal mail route across the South Atlantic. The French native, who sadly disappeared six years later during a flight in a Latécoère 300, achieved considerable fame in both South America and his home country as a result of his feats.
Jacqueline Auriol
Supersonic Test Flier A fierce but friendly competitor against an American pilot with the same first name (Jacqueline Cochrane), Jacqueline Auriol was a highly successful French aviator. Cochrane and Auriol traded overall speed records for women for more than a decade in the 1950s and 60s. Auriol’s flying career started in the late 1940s with what was called a tourist license, which allowed her to fly stunt flights. In 1950, Auriol became the first certificated female test pilot in the world and she broke the sound barrier in 1953, only shortly after Cochrane. For her first supersonic flight and several record-breaking flights, she flew the Mystere IV, a fighter-bomber jet manufactured in her motherland by Dassault. Auriol was one of the first pilots to fly the supersonic Concorde.
51 Heroes of Aviation
Want more pilots? Check out Flying’s “51 Heroes of Aviation” for some of the most inspirational figures in aviation history. Click here to view the list. Get exclusive online content like this delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for our free enewsletter.


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